Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Lambeau Experience

I’ve wanted to make the trip to Lambeau Field for a long time and it seemed a natural to take in the Jaguars/Packers game in August to accomplish that. I know it’s not the entire “experience” of the “frozen tundra” but it was special nonetheless.

I flew to Milwaukee and drove the two hours up to Green Bay. All interstate, it’s a pretty easy drive and I was a few hours early so traffic wasn’t much of a problem. I did stop on the way for a few minutes at a Holiday Inn and was pretty amazed to see a bunch of people milling around the lobby wearing their Packer green and gold. Obviously they were headed to the game.

Once in Green Bay I was surprised at the size of the town. Although it is an outpost along the shore of the lake, it’s not a one-horse town by any means. But it wasn’t hard to find the stadium. It looms in the distance as a true landmark. I was traveling with my friends Rob and Keith so as we got closer we were all pretty surprised at all of the fans hanging around the stadium and all of the homeowners near Lambeau who were parking cars in their front yard.

It was clean with wide parkways and neatly trimmed lawns, something you’d see out of a Rockwell painting if he’d ever attended an NFL game. We parked and looked for a place to get something to eat. The atmosphere around the game was much like Florida/Georgia at home with out the majority of people being over-served. But it was festive with bands playing and people really enjoying themselves. All of this for an exhibition game! We ate across the street, ordering the local fare, butter burgers and cheese curds.

Lambeau was renovated in 2000, so the structure itself is new-looking brick and glass. It seats over 70,000 but there’s no upper deck. It’s all in the lower bowl with great sight lines from every seat and the luxury boxes and press box perched above the seats. The vibe was excited and friendly with people milling everywhere, just about everybody in some kind of Packer jersey. If you weren’t wearing green and gold, you stood out like a sore thumb.

One end of the stadium has an expanded building, housing the Packer Hall of Fame. If you’re any kind of NFL fan, it’s great, starting with a 12-minute video chronicling the history of the team followed by memorabilia from Packer greats over the years. If you played in the NFL and were lucky enough to play for Green Bay you’re a hero forever in that town.

They also have an Atrium at the end of the stadium where they have a variety of eateries and drink carts adding to the overall experience. We ordered Bloody Mary’s’ and I saw the most complete condiment cart for Bloodies I’ve ever seen! You name it as a possible add-on for your drink it was there. You could have virtually a whole salad in with the vodka and the mix. They had some of the best horseradish ever on that cart as well.

We took in the view from a variety of seats around the stadium and even though we found three together in the club section the stadium was virtually full. One thing the club section had was a flip card roster for every seat, something the Jaguars could add to their repertoire.

Packer fans were, as expected, very knowledgeable and had high expectations. They weren’t disappointed by their first team (as opposed to the Jaguars fans at the game) and knew what they were looking for when the back-ups got in the game.

If you have a chance to ever go to a Packer game, go. It’s well worth the trip. Maybe my next one will be in December when they say the real “experience” happens.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Vick’s In Trouble

Michael Vick is in trouble. After months of investigation, the federal government handed down an indictment charging Vick and several others with running and engaging in a dog-fighting venture. Vick has claimed innocence all along, saying he owned the house where this activity was going on, but it was his relatives taking advantage of his generosity.

The Feds say differently.

They say Vick was not only involved, but he was a ring leader, even so much as buying t-shirts and headbands for his “crew” that said “Bad Newz Kennels” and wearing them to the fights.

How did they get this information?

Obviously they spent a lot of time with a search warrant at the house in Virginia but they also found some of the other people who were involved with the fighting and told them they’d be going to jail if they didn’t give up some information. So the information is very specific.

Sixty-six dogs were found when the feds raided the house originally, 55 of them pit bulls. They were chained to car axles and kept from eating to make them more agitated. Witnesses say the losing dogs were killed, if they didn’t die in the ring, with a vote being taken whether they should be electrocuted, shot or beaten to death.

What kinds of people do this stuff?

I’ve heard the arguments that it’s part of the culture, that they’re just following tradition. That’s ridiculous. It’s against the law and everybody knows it. Dogs don’t have a mind of their own and using them to fight is wrong.

That’s where Michael Vick is in trouble. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, maybe a strip club where a fight breaks out, you can beg off and even if you’re convicted of a crime, people really don’t care. But cruelty to animals and abuse is an unforgivable offense in the court of public opinion.

Plus, this is the federal government involved. It’s not some county prosecutor trying to make a name for himself. These are the guys who sent Martha Stewart to jail. If they can get past her army of lawyers, they can put Vick in jail, and they will.

That leaves NFL commissioner Roger Godell with a bit of a dilemma. With his actions against Chris Henry and Adam Jones, Godell has set a precedent of “no tolerance” when it comes to running afoul of the law. I don’t know how he can look at Vick, under a federal indictment, any differently.

Again, this is the feds we’re talking about and they’re not going to make a case, and make it so public without feeling like they have plenty of evidence.

Being a somewhat public figure, I asked my boss if they’d suspend me if I were under a federal indictment. Probably not, they said, but they’d take me off the air. Vick is the face of the Falcons, and in many respects (including the cover of Madden) the face of the league. Can they allow him to play with the indictment hanging over his head? The Players Association will have something to say about this but I don’t think Vick can play for now.

And if things go wrong, we might have seen the last of Michael Vick in the NFL.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Hall of Fame Vote

I’d have written this earlier but I’ve been tied up answering and deleting all of the hate email that has filled up my mailbox since the Pro Football Hall of Fame vote was announced. There are confidentiality rules that come with the honor of being one of 40 selectors on the committee so there’s only so much I can say. But I can tell you this: It was a long, sometimes contentious, very conscientious, well thought out meeting on Saturday where we reviewed the 17 finalists who had made it to the final list.

From 7:30 until 2:15 with a couple of short breaks, we met in a room at the Miami Beach Convention Center and meticulously went over the credentials, careers and achievements of all 17 eligible for discussion.

The order of discussion is rotated every year by position, so they guys who are on the table at 8AM aren’t forgotten by 2PM. The list is whittled down to 10 (11 this year because of a tie) and then down to 6 as the candidates compete against each other for one of the final six spots. Once the final six are chosen, each gets an up or down vote.

I’ve been on the committee for 12 years and have come to the conclusion that if a player makes the final six, he should get in. Some of the other members of the committee deride that attitude and one in his national column called it an “ill-advised” plea to put all six, no matter who they are, in the Hall. But I happen to agree with that philosophy now, even if I didn’t before.

Not voting for a player who gets to the final six is either an act of personal vendetta or arrogance. Especially if he’s a player recommended by the Senior Committee. If a player is brought to the full commit from the Senior meeting in August, he’s been closely inspected and more scrutinized than anybody else on the ballot.

Seniors are pulled out of the morass of hundreds of players who some how “slipped through the cracks” (some of my fellow committee members hate that expression.) But it’s true, they either got caught up in a numbers game or the social pressures of the time when they were eligible (see Bob Hayes) didn’t allow their induction. So if a guy makes it to the final six, it means that a vast majority of your fellow committee members think that he’s Hall of Fame worthy.

So you’re the only smart one among the bunch? You’re the one who’s going to keep him out although some of the top people in your profession sitting in that room, listening to the same arguments think he should get in? I have to say that it doesn’t surprise me that some of the people on the committee have that attitude because that’s how they conduct themselves on a regular basis. But I have a lot of respect for the process and if a guy gets to the final six, he’s getting my vote.

I didn’t want to vote for Michael Irvin but he made the final six so I gave him a “yes” even though in my personal “Hall” he’s not a Hall of Famer.

The reduction to 11 didn’t surprise me even though just retired Commissioner Paul Tagliabue didn’t make the first cut. We spent 57 minutes talking about Tagliabue. Some of it was heated, with his proponents pointing out the legacy he left and the growth of the league while his detractors brought up examples of just the opposite. I think Tagliabue will eventually get into the Hall. He was part numbers game part incomplete career in terms of not getting more consideration.

When the vote got down from 11 to 6, I could have easily made a case for the five who didn’t make the final cut. They all have Hall of Fame credentials. I am surprised by the lack of support for Gary Zimmerman. As his presenter pointed out, he was the only player of the 17 on the ballot to be a two-time all-decade performer in the league. The best in two different decades but not in the Hall of Fame? Could have also been a numbers game with the plethora of offensive linemen on the ballot.

Again, I was disappointed that Art Monk didn’t get to the final six. Some of his detractors in the past publicly said they were changing their vote, so I thought he might have enough support this year. But it might have been a numbers game as well. Or it could be a backlash against the non-stop email campaign from Monk’s supporters among fans who harangue me and the other voters for not having already put Monk in the Hall. I guess they’re not different than the Cowboy fans who wrote after Rayfield Wright and Troy Aikman were in the same class that I had some kind of anti-Cowboy bias.

Bob Kuchenberg belongs in the Hall, but there is a sentiment that Jim Langer and Larry Little are already in and that’s enough offensive linemen from that Dolphins team. That’s baloney; he’s a Hall of Famer.

Putting Roger Wehrli in was long overdue. As one of my fellow selectors said it was a “sophisticated pick.”

As a member of the committee, I don’t have a say in the process, but we were able to give our opinions to several of the Hall’s Board of Trustees. As a group, the selectors would like to see the initial process of paring down the list changed and we’d like to see the class bigger, especially with the addition of another Senior Candidate. Don’t be surprised if next year, the class could grow to seven.

Other than that, I can tell you it’s a serious process with a lot of work done by members of the committee. Make fun of the process, call the whole thing silly if you like but I can tell you first-hand, in that room, it’s serious business.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Super Bowl XLI

“I thought these were supposed to be the two best teams,” one fan joked at the end of the first quarter. A kickoff runback, three fumbles and an interception.

The Bears took the lead on Devin Hester’s opening kickoff run back for a touchdown and lead 14-6 after a good catch by Musin Muhammad from Rex Grossman. In between, Peyton Manning eluded a sack and hit a wide-open Reggie Wayne for a touchdown on a blown coverage although the holder botched the conversion.

Even though the Bears had the lead, you didn’t think they were in control, nor did it seem that Indy had any grasp of the game either.

And it was raining. Harder and harder.

But the Colts seemed to accept the fact that the game was going to be played in these conditions and they were going to just have to find a way to get it done. The Bears continued to try and run the ball and why not? The Colts were the worst team against the run in the regular season, but they’ve become a very stout defense in the playoffs.


“Because we’re playing better,” Tony Dungy deadpanned during the week. That and the return of Bob Sanders to the defensive backfield.

When the Jaguars ran for 375 yards against the Colts in December, Sanders wasn’t in the game. Adam Vinatieri hit a 29-yard field goal after a nice drive to bring Indy to within 5 at 14-9.

Manning seems to have settled down after his first quarter interception and the Colts offense looks like the Colts offense of the regular season not the one that struggled against Baltimore and into the post-season. But the key is they’re running the football. Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai are all over the place running and catching and the Bears seem content to give them that. Marvin Harrison is making some catches, although none for big yardage.

Another controlled drive lead to a Colts touchdown by Rhodes and a 16-14 halftime lead for Indianapolis. Chicago is in the game despite having virtually no offense in the second quarter. Take away the opening kickoff return and this game looks like all Colts.

They’ll get the ball in the second half and they take it right down and score on 13 plays getting another Vinatieri FG. But they converted three long third downs and look to be wearing the Chicago defense out.

On Lex and Terry I picked the Colts, mainly because I didn’t think the Bears with Rex Grossman could score enough points. I didn’t give the Colts defense enough credit but Grossman is living up to the downside of his billing. He’s fumbled a couple of snaps and tripped over his own feet once going back to throw. He has to be efficient and smart, but Manning is doing that instead of trying to hit the home run. It seems that he knows that if he doesn’t make any stupid mistakes, the Colts can get the job done. A different feeling for him, letting his defense create field position and play a bit of a clock management game.

The Colts get another field goal but so do the Bears. It’s now 22-17 and Chicago, despite no offense, is still in the game. Grossman’s pass to the sideline was intercepted by Kelvin Hayden a backup, and returned 56 yards for a touchdown. That looks like it’ll seal it for the Colts barring something weird happening.

As soon as Grossman let go of the ball everybody wondered “Why?” It was an easy pick and the runback was only in question as to whether he stepped out or not.

Colts win and the stats are dominating. Twenty-four first downs to eleven, and a few of those for the Bears came in the last drive.

Manning is the MVP, although they could have easily given it to the offensive line or both running backs.

Despite the rain and the early sloppy play, the game went as expected. Indy scored and Chicago couldn’t match it. Manning wins the big game by playing out of character, just taking what the defense will give him.

A nice win for Tony Dungy too, showing that you can coach without being a raving maniac. Leadership isn’t all about screaming and hollering after all.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Miami’s Nice-Super Bowl Preview

It’s a very different Super Bowl week for a lot of reasons. The two teams, Indianapolis and Chicago are just 200 miles from each other in the Midwest. While the Bears have a national following, one player, Peyton Manning, defines the Colts.

Can he win the big one?

Can he take the Colts to the Super Bowl?

There’s no controversy, there are no “Bad Boys” on either team (figuratively of course. Tank Johnson would qualify in a literal sense).

It seems that there are 300,000 people headed to Miami and South Beach for the weekend just to be a part of the atmosphere. The last time the game was in Miami was 1999. Miami has become “hot” since then with TV shows and nightlife that glorifies the party scene. It’s the place where many NFL players head right after their games on Sunday to get in a party on Sunday night and through Monday before they have to get back to work on Wednesday. Some charter jets, others (from the Jaguars and the Bucs) jump on Southwest to Ft. Lauderdale to get there ASAP.

There also seems to be a pent up demand from corporate America to get something going at this Super Bowl. Right after September 11th, most corporations cut back on their entertainment spending, drying up a lot of the big dollars that they spent on clients to send them to big events like the Super Bowl. Add that to the fact that the game has been in Houston (ho-hum), Jacksonville (too little) and Detroit (too chilly) and all of the sudden folks are coming out of the woodwork to get to Miami and be part of the scene.

One columnist in Miami wrote it best when the headline on his Tuesday article said, “Today, the circus comes to town.” It really is a traveling circus, and the people who come to the Super Bowl are attracted to what Miami has to offer. Nightlife, strip clubs, cocktails and restaurants. The promise that you might see a celebrity or get invited to somebody’s party is a strong attraction for the Super bowl set.


Who needs tickets?

The game is an ancillary part of the week. The Maxim, Playboy, SI and ESPN parties are the big tickets people are trying to scam.

I think this is my 25th Super Bowl, and the whole thing has changed. In fact, it seems to change every year. Sometimes for the better, sometimes, not so much. This year the league has designated certain parts of South Florida as official “Super Bowl Zones.” But make no mistake about it. If it’s not happening in South Beach, it might as well not be happening at all.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Quarterbacks ‘R Us

It might be the most intriguing position in sports.

At quarterback you have to be athletic, smart, communicate well and have a thick skin. You’re the goat when the team loses and the hero when they win. And sometimes you’re the goat when they win but never the hero when they lose.

You’re legacy depends on wins and losses and championships. Stats are fine, but getting into the playoffs and making a name for yourself is what you’ll leave behind in the league.

And there are intangibles at the quarterback position that you can’t quantify.

He has to be a leader, either by what he does or by what he says. The team has to respond to him. For the third week in a row, David Garrard will be the starter for the Jaguars. He’s lost only once as a starter, including two straight wins this year. Garrard is mobile and strong-armed. He might not be as accurate as he’d like, but his production is undeniable.

And Garrard has the intangibles.

The team plays at a different tempo when he’s in the lineup. He’s quick to the line and the team responds to it. And take nothing away from Byron Leftwich. He’s productive and, when healthy, gets the job done.

He also has the intangibles a quarterback needs and the team responds to him, but in a different way. He’s more laid-back. He’s slower and has a different rhythm. So, is one better than another? Depends on whom you ask and who the opponent is.

Last year when Leftwich was hurt, Garrard filled in, helping the Jaguars to the playoffs. They were in a rhythm, Garrard’s rhythm. When Head Coach Jack Del Rio extracted Garrard from the lineup inserting Leftwich, it wasn’t that Leftwich couldn’t play; he disrupted the dynamic of the team. They were in Garrard’s rhythm and had been for about six weeks. Leftwich played OK against the Patriots but the team was out of sync and they were soundly beaten.

This week, Del Rio announced that Garrard would be the starter and qualified it by saying that Leftwich’s ankle was “85 or 90 percent” and that it might “need a clean out procedure” at some point. So it gives Del Rio a reason to keep Garrard in the lineup and follows his philosophy of putting the player in the lineup who give the Jaguars the best chance to win, regardless of position, salary or draft number.

It’s the right call.

The team is in rhythm, they’re winning and finally on Wednesday Leftwich got on message saying that he’d do “anything to help the team win.”

I know Byron wanted to have a big year so he could demand a contract extension but it’s a big, bad world out here among the working folk. Sometimes things don’t work exactly as you’d like. So keep your head up and keep working and something good will happen. Like you’ll be on a playoff team again.

And that ain’t half bad.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

A TO from T.O.

You thought it was plausible. That’s why there was a firestorm of speculation and information when it was reported that Terrell Owens had attempted suicide. Owens is wired different, is a publicity hound, loves the spotlight and appears to have a screw loose. So, taking his own life? I can see that, you thought.

Or perhaps you thought it was a publicity stunt, which most people figured to begin with. Or, very darkly, you thought he was going to do away with himself because of some deep, dark secret that was going to be revealed.

But Owens said none of that is true. Just a mistake, a misunderstanding, a mixture of his supplements and some pain medication put him in an “unresponsive” state, and his publicist called 911. The police report said he admitted to trying to harm himself, but Owens said he was “out of it” and didn’t remember saying that.

“He was taken advantage of,” his publicist, somewhat oddly, said at a press conference in Dallas.

In this era of a 24-hour news cycle, we saw this one develop in front of our eyes. And only because it was Owens did it become big news. If it was Terry Glenn, very little would have been said. But Owens has his own PR machine, like it or not, and he was splattered all over television and the internet for a full 24 hours.

I didn’t buy into the sensationalism of it all, thinking it was, in fact, an allergic reaction, but also wondering if it was a suicide attempt, that getting him help, and not shoving a camera in his face, should have been the first priority. But that’s not what the news business is about these days, and Owens has figured it out.

Maybe he’s telling the truth, maybe he’s not, but either way, he knows exactly what to do once given the opportunity to get his face in front of the public in the most dramatic way. He wanted to hold a press conference in his front yard again, but the Cowboys told him no. So he showed up at the Cowboy facility and was a part of the process of explanation.

Head Coach Bill Parcells didn’t know anything, and told the media just that. But when Owens took the podium, he did so with his own personal support group, including his own publicist. By way of explanation, every NFL team, including the Cowboys, has a PR staff that churns out all kinds of information and publicizes the players every move. So for Owens to bring along his own publicist, is a little out of bounds. But obviously agreed to by the Cowboys.

But have you noticed that the Cowboys have gone from one crisis to another since Owens joined the team? Do you think Parcells will put up with that for long? He refers to Owens as “the player” for now, so can his patience running out be far behind.

Maybe Owens is bipolar. Maybe he’s just kooky or maybe he’s just wired differently from everyone else, leaving us to constantly wonder. But this latest escapade is evidence that no matter what he does, we’ll buy into it.

At least for a while.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Information Management

With some of the new rules the NFL has instituted limiting the access of the media to the teams, the flow of information has been somewhat restricted. As the league moves closer to its own network and their partners, it also is moving closer to an attempt to manage the news and information that comes out of each club.

Most of the changes will have no effect on fans, unless they’re interested in the unvarnished truth about injuries and other assorted things that could have an effect on the outcome of the game.

Reporters are not allowed at practice after the first thirty minutes. Most of that involves stretching and agility drills. That’s why Marcus Stroud’s ankle injury wasn’t revealed until the next day when he didn’t show up for practice at all. The injury is serious enough that Marcus had an MRI on Thursday and he probably won’t play on Sunday against Dallas. If that’s the case, it’ll be the first game Marcus has missed in his five years as a professional.

If you don’t see the kind of coverage of NFL teams on your local television stations league wide throughout the year, that’s because of the league’s new rule barring local photographers from the games. Teams have tried to tiptoe around the rule, allowing a “pool” camera (Channel 4 and Channel 12 are working together this year on this project) but the ability to get the video necessary to do the personality profiles and such is no longer there. Again, a small effect on fans in general, but another piece of information that’s being limited.

Pete Rozelle, the former commissioner, warned against the NFL becoming a “television studio league” but with the development of the NFL Network and the big money, Disney, Fox and GE have given the league to televise the games, the privileges of coverage from an electronic standpoint are going to those who write the biggest checks.

Outside of post-game press conferences, the Jaguars have split Jack Del Rio’s media time between electronic and print. There are a couple of silly justifications given for this. The writers don’t like the answers to their questions being used on TV, and Jack Del Rio doesn’t like his banter with the writers, particularly the beat writer for the local paper, to be recorded on videotape. Yet, the writers are given a transcript of the electronic press conference and the PR staff gathers quotes that are handed out to the media.

While all of this sounds like media whining and carping and its effect on fans is minimal for now, it’s a bad trend for the league. Players are already substantially removed from the fans based on the economics of the pay scale. They’re less and less a part of their communities and more and more a part of a larger “NFL” community.

As teams continue to ask for higher ticket prices and more commitment from local governments to build stadiums and give business breaks, the league should be finding ways to get closer to its fans, not farther away.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Saban Vision

It was just a quick little blurb when I first saw it. President Bush in South Florida, having dinner at Joe’s Stone Crabs with a bunch of well-known Floridians. Nick Saban, Head Coach of the Miami Dolphins declined the invitation because he was “too busy with training camp.” It struck me as amusing, but not weird, that’s how coaches act and I’ve been conditioned to expect it.

Since that “blurb” everybody’s had their shots at Saban and have run his decision into the ground. Of course it’s weird and wrong, but I’m sure Saban can’t figure out what the fuss is all about. In fact, anybody in the coaching profession is probably totally perplexed with the reaction. Coaches coach, that’s what they do. The ones that are “so-called” successful think that out-working the competition puts them a little ahead of the rest of the world.

Dick Vermeil and Joe Gibbs were the first over the top workers. Sure you can go back to Vince Lombardi and a few others, but Vermeil is the first celebrated self-proclaimed “burnout” while Gibbs stepped away from the game when he realized he was missing his whole life. He even tells a famous story about himself going home early one night to tuck his son into bed and realizing his son had a goatee and was 220 lbs! His wife used to record dinner table conversations among his family and send them to Redskins Park hoping Gibbs would get a chance to listen to them.

Vermeil was famous for sleeping at his office in order to not waste the time driving back and forth to his house. We’ve seen that first hand in Jacksonville with Tom Coughlin. He’s a famous over-worker and several coaches left or turned down jobs with the Jaguars because of Coughlin’s famous over-working habits.

Right after September 11, 2001, Paul Tagliabue declared a moratorium on working one day that week, mandating that the league be shut down. Coughlin ignored Tagliabue’s directive and came to work anyway, his car the only one in the stadium parking lot.

So that kind of bizarre behavior doesn’t seem strange to me. Anti-social, tunnel vision, call it anything you want. It’s weird, but acceptable in that profession, even lauded. If a guy doesn’t work enough (see Steve Spurrier) he’s criticized for letting things get away from him.

Gibbs does have three Super Bowl rings, and Vermeil finally got his, but not before he realized life was passing him by. Saban’s team won it’s last six games last year and is the trendy pick to be a contender this year. But it doesn’t matter. Even if the Dolphins win the Super Bowl this season, Saban will always be known as the coach who picked two hours of film over two hours with the President of the United States.

I hope when he’s 80 and nobody remembers he was a coach he can remember the plays he researched. I hope they work.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Houston, You Have A Problem

It’s hard to believe that Charley Casserly has enough sway and enough juice inside the organization to make the kind of moves he has over the last year, but he must. From getting rid of Dom Capers to switching tracks at the top of the draft, Casserly has his imprint on the Texans franchise. The problem is, the franchise isn’t very good, and it’s not going to get any better.

For now. Mario Williams is a good player. He’s probably worthy of a first round pick, and maybe even the top pick. But not versus Reggie Bush. Bush is a once-every-ten-years player. Williams comes along every year with some kind of comparisons to Julius Peppers and Lawrence Taylor. But Bush with his versatility and explosiveness gives you a home run hitter that has to be recognized every time you snap the ball.

Let alone the ticket selling potential and the “buzz” factor.

Bush apparently was trying to milk the Texans for an extra $6 million or so leading up to the draft during the negotiations. Casserly balked at the number and moved to Williams, perhaps because of his “signability.”

“We thought there were two number one’s in this draft, Reggie Bush and Mario Williams. We couldn’t make a deal with Reggie so we signed Mario,” is how the Texans General Manager explained it. If I were a Texans season ticket holder, I’d be pretty angry. Angry enough to try and sell my tickets, or burn them in front of Reliant Stadium when I knew that Owner Bob McNair was watching.

Everybody in Houston apparently wanted the Texans to draft Vince Young from Texas. But Casserly said the team “assessed the situation and decided that we didn’t need a quarterback so we moved in another direction.”

So David Carr is their quarterback and they decide that Mario Williams is worthy of the top pick. Surely they will take an offensive lineman at the top of the second round! But no! Instead they go defense again, taking DeMeco Ryans, a linebacker. Can he block? Carr certainly hopes so.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

They Made A Deal

As much as the NFL owners are portrayed as a fraternity of like-minded, chummy associates, when it comes to money, their relationship is about business. That was very apparent in the final day of the meeting/negotiating session in Dallas as the owners were trying to hash out revenue sharing among themselves and a deal with the players union.

At one point over the two-day session, Jim Irsay of the Indianapolis Colts said, “We need the ghost of Wellington Mara to appear.” Mara, the long time owner of the New York Giants who died last year, is generally credited with giving the NFL life when he agreed to revenue sharing with the other owners instead of piling up the big bucks as an owner in the largest market in America.

Because of the worth of the teams, more than half of the owners have bought their clubs in the last 15 years. That means they don’t know anything about the labor problems of the league in the ‘80’s or the competition they faced from the AFL in the ‘60’s, followed by the USFL two decades later. The Raiders Al Davis was convinced that a rival league would have spawned had the NFL not made a deal with the players. “It would have been out there,” Davis said after the proposal was approved 30-2. “A ten team league would have been easy to put together to rival ours. It would have been anarchy. I know, I’ve lived it.”

Apparently a blending of a couple ideas was approved by the ownership with the top 15 high revenue teams contributing money to a pool that would be distributed over the other 17 teams in the league. “There are a lot of people giving a lot of money away,” is how Pittsburgh’s Dan Rooney characterized it. It was a true compromise with plenty of give and take.

Guys like Jerry Jones of Dallas and Daniel Snyder of Washington got on board, accepting the idea that some money made in the future because of the size of their market could be shared for the good of the league. “We got moving,” Jones said, “when some of the smaller revenue teams realized that some of the concerns they had just weren’t going to be addressed.”


Wouldn’t you like to have been a fly on the wall in that meeting when Jones, Snyder and some of the other big market guys just stood up and told those other owners that what they wanted just wasn’t going to happen? When was the last time anybody told an NFL owner no about anything? It’s the bazillionaires telling the skillionaires that they can’t have what they want.

It is a deal that keeps the league going in the direction it’s going: up. Even though they’re in business together, what’s a few million among friends?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

It’s The Goose, Stupid!

It seems almost unheard of that the NFL could some how screw things up, but from the rhetoric surrounding the labor talks, we know that anything is possible. The owner and the players are apparently far apart on the issues and that in itself, even if they ever make a deal, seems ludicrous. I’m well aware of what kind of public face negotiations take on, but how can either side look at what they’ve got and say somehow it’s bad? There are millions if not billions of dollars to go around.

The owners have a lucrative television deal and many partnerships with cities with sweetheart deals allowing them long-term, favorable leases on stadiums.

The players have free agency; the owners have a salary cap.

The owners have year-to-year contracts; the players have up-front bonus money.

Everybody’s making money, with the owners raking it in (not to mention the increase in the value of the teams) and the players peddling their skill to the highest bidder.

If there’s one thing that could be fixed in the league, it’s the nature of the have’s and have-nots on the rosters. Because of the salary cap, veteran players are squeezed out if they’re not top-flight starters in favor of cheaper rookies and younger players. But that’s beside the point. Figuring out how the revenue can be distributed among the players and the owners can’t be that hard.

The 32 owners are a notorious bunch of businessmen, all getting to be where they are by being shrewd and tough. Most of them have other businesses with football as an ancillary part of their conglomerate. The players need a union to work for them, to protect them as a whole, but there’s got to be a point where the players say to the union leadership, “Get this done!”

That might come sooner rather than later.

If there’s no agreement this weekend, there will be a massive dumping of high dollar players, and there will be very few teams with the available money to sign them. Some guys, in the prime of their careers, will find themselves on the street. That’s the worse case scenario for the players and for the league.

I know a lot of teams use the salary cap excuse to get rid of players who still have value but are too expensive, but this is a different situation. Without an agreement, the league will look very different for one year. Teams will sign star players to a one-year deal hoping to get to the Super Bowl. After that, the big market teams will dominate and the league will never be the same.

And nobody wants that.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Detroit’s XL

You could only chuckle when the reports about Detroit hosting the Super Bowl started coming in. The game was awarded to the Motor City as a nod to the car manufacturers, William Clay Ford the owner of the Lions, Roger Penske and as a reward for building a new stadium.

Detroit’s like any other “Old World” city. Industry has come and gone, jobs have come and gone, people are trying to move out and the town is dark and gray in the winter. Unless you’re in the car business, nobody’s moving to Detroit. But like any of the established cities in the US, there are nice places to be found.

Gross Pointe, Bloomfield Hills, Troy, they’re all suburbs, just like suburbs anywhere else: nice neighborhoods, good places to live and raise kids. There are hockey leagues everywhere and they celebrate their cold weather as part of the culture. In fact, people are proud of their ability to endure, to overcome the things that are part of living in a place that has snow, sleet, and cold temperatures.

Detroit is the hometown of sportswriter Mitch Albom (he also wrote Tuesdays With Morrie) who wrote a touchy-feely piece about warmth of character of the people of Detroit. His point was that there’s some nobility in working two jobs to make ends meet. He compared his town to Orlando and Disney World saying that’s a fabricated world and Detroit is real.

And I don’t disagree with any of that.

If you’re living in Detroit either you have to or you want to. There’s no in between. Either you can’t leave or you really want to stay. That’s not the case is most of the cities hosting the Super Bowl, including Jacksonville. Nobody has to live in Jacksonville. They’re not tied to the company store, the job at the mill or the mine. People live there because the living is easy and nice. And there’s plenty of “warmth of character” among the people who live there as well.

I’m over all of the shots the media took at Jacksonville last year. I’ve always said you have to let the city reveal itself to you instead of it slapping you in the face as soon as you get there. But I’m still a little frosted about the continued snide comments from poorly dressed, over-fed, ill-informed, self-important hacks who spent four days there and all of the sudden became experts.

One writer wrote the 16 reasons the Super Bowl is ok in Detroit. Reasons #2 and #14 were “It’s not Jacksonville.”

Detroit is getting nice reviews for their “hospitality” and the people have been nice. Kind of standoffish, but nice. Motown does have casinos, something most people I’ve talked to didn’t know. But the people who are visiting have figured that out right away. Maybe that’s why Detroit is getting a little bit of a pass. That, and everybody knew the weather was going to be a factor (bad).

So Jacksonville suffered from; 1) nobody knew what to expect, 2) no casinos, 3) not enough hotel rooms and 4) no strip joints. At least that’s what seems to be the general consensus of those who are in Detroit this week. It is Detroit after all.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Hall Of Fame Choices

As a voter for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I get a chance each year to hear the pros and cons debated about each of the eligible players the day before the Super Bowl. There are 39 electors on the Hall of Fame committee, writers and broadcasters representing the 32 NFL cities, the Pro Football Writers of America and some at-large voters as well.

The debate is usually spirited, with some biases at work that still have me shaking my heard.

This year the fifteen finalists don’t include any “contributors” to the game and that seems strange. Neither Art Modell, George Young nor Ralph Wilson made it to the final ballot. All three have been there before. Which makes me belive that there might have been a coordinated effort among some of the voters to not bring any of the contributors to the committee this year.

There’s been a long standing debate regarding whether the contributors should fight for the limited number of spots available for the Hall with the players and coaches involved in the game. The total number of electees in any one year can only be six, and if you throw a contributor or two in there, all of the sudden, the players are getting squeezed out.

I agree that the contributors should have their own separate category, but the Hall’s Board of Directors doesn’t see it that way and therefore, they’ll continue to be on the general ballott. With only six eligible spots, this year is going to be tough. It’ll be an elimination ballott in my mind instead of a who’s deserving vote.

When the Seniors committee brings a player to the final 15, I think it’s amazing that somebody would vote one of those down. Two members of the Seniors committee meet with the Hall’s administration and two members of the Hall in August to go through the thousands of players who’s careers ended more than 25 years ago. They’re looking for the guys who “slipped through the cracks.”

In my 11 years on the committee, only two senior candidates, Jerry Kramer and Bob Hayes didn’t get elected. If a guy is grabbed out of that morass of players and makes it through the voting process to the final up or down, who among the committee members thinks they’re just smarter than everybody else and votes no? Not me, I can assure you.

Kramer was subjected to the “I’m not putting anymore Packers in” syndrome. Hayes’ chance was mortally wounded when a prominent writer.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Rashean Mathis, Star

When Jacksonville was awarded a franchise in the NFL I was as excited as anybody as a sports fan. As a journalist, the field was open and the possibilities were endless. A lot of that didn’t work out, and a lot of it did, the one constant being our Monday night show, “The End Zone.” Through the show, I’ve gotten to know the players on an individual basis, especially the five who have acted as the host of the show.

We asked Jeff Lageman to be the original host, literally when we ran into him in the mall. Lageman was determined to improve and be better on the air and worked at it. He had an agenda and followed it. Next was Keenan McCardell who, if Jimmy Smith is considered “smooth” Keenan was “cool.” Keenan protected his teammates, and followed what you might consider a stereotypical NFL player’s lifestyle, at least on the outside. He was immaculately dressed, always with the latest cell phone in his ear (first guy I ever saw with an earpiece), nice enough but kept his business to himself.

When Keenan moved on, we hired Donovin Darius who seemed like a natural choice. Interested in the technical side of broadcasting, Darius also had a great story to tell, raising his brother and sister while he was still in college. He’s a real paradox, as genuine as can be when it comes to his commitment to his team, his game and his family and the biggest phony you’ve ever met in so many other areas.

We moved on to Kyle Brady who was perfect. Out of that professional relationship, Kyle and I have become friends. We share many of the same interests and grew up in towns not far from each other (Kyle in southern PA, me in Baltimore). He and his wife have a young family and he didn’t want to give up his Monday nights, so he opted out. You won’t meet a nicer, better guy.

Our most recent host, Rashean Mathis was a gamble at the beginning. A young player, we didn’t know where his career was going but had a hunch he was going to be a star. Plus, I liked him.

I met Rashean in his second day of training camp. He walked into the interview room with his long dreads, wearing his hat on backwards, sunglasses, long shorts and oversized t-shirt. Right or wrong, that image gives you certain expectations based on your experience with other players in the same situation. But Rashean’s handshake was firm as he looked me in the eye and said, “Good morning, I understand you’ve asked to talk with me, I’m Rashean Mathis.”

“Thanks for taking the time to talk with us,” I replied.

“My pleasure,” Rashean said.


It was the first time I’ve ever had that exchange with a professional athlete.

When we were done, I was talking to our sports photographer, Kevin Talley and said, “That’s the next host of the End Zone.” “No kidding, pretty impressive,” Kevin replied.

Little did we know that Rashean would work hard at becoming the best football player he could be and would be considered a linchpin in the Jaguars success on defense. He can cover. He can, and will tackle, and he wants to win. He’s a great athlete who now says he’s ready to play cornerback. “I was a safety in college so when I came into the league I was just an athlete playing corner. Now I’m a corner back,” Rashean told us this week after his big game against Pittsburgh.

“There are little things, techniques to playing corner that I’ve learned from my teammates and coaches that let me use my athletic ability to make key plays.” That might sound like boasting coming from some other players, but there’s an earnest quality to Rashean that makes it sound like fact. Because it is. But more than his ability on the field and his accomplishments as a player, I’ve been impressed by Rashean’s off-field demeanor. He’s a star, no doubt, with a new, big extended contract. Still his outlook seems the same.

He uses his Mom’s last name as his own, honoring her for raising him as a single parent. He’s close to his mother, his brother and the rest of his family. His pastor comes to the show on Monday nights. He’s friendly with the fans at the show, signing autographs and taking pictures until everybody’s happy. I told him we were going to have to hire a security guard for him if he keeps it up. He just laughed.

There might be hundreds of stories just like Rashean in professional sports that we don’t hear about. Eventually, his story will be a national sensation. Hometown, high school star, ignored by the big schools now making it big as a pro in his own back yard.

Everybody will be proud of him.

I know I already am.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Owen’s Folly

Generally, this whole professional sports business has changed. It hasn’t happened overnight, but rather an evolution over the last 25 years or so. Call it a revolution if you will. Sure, there have always been selfish, self-centered pros, but it’s at a whole new level. If there was ever any question in the past, it’s in the open now: it’s all about the money. And while he’s not the only offender, Terrell Owens is the perfect poster boy for what we might see in the future. No questioning his talent. Last year’s performance in the Super Bowl validated his ability to play, and play well in big games. Especially after his injury. But Owens has brought to the public the thing that sits right beneath the surface of any professional athlete: it’s about me.

Certainly there are exceptions, but whether they’re parading in front of the media or just quietly doing their job, professional athletes are just that, professionals earning a paycheck. Owens can’t help himself, obviously. He wants the spotlight on him full time, good or bad. He’ll do (front yard workouts) and say (calling out his quarterback) anything that he thinks might make it more about him. The higher the profile in today’s world of “The Insider” the more money there is to be made.

Dennis Rodman brought it to basketball. Early on it was a very finely choreographed act, but Rodman started to believe it and blew himself up. Owens is just the next step in that evolution.

Football has always been different, mainly because of the team aspect and the violence involved. Guys like Owens have existed in the past, but as soon as they took one step in that direction, players on their own team took care of it. Whether it was in the locker room or on the practice field, Owens would have paid a price for his words and his actions that would have hurt and perhaps landed him on IR. In this politically correct world though, that won’t happen.

Even though Brian Dawkins and a couple of his Eagles’ teammates have expressed “concern” about the distraction, nobody’s hammering on this guy in order to get things straight on their team. And believe me, throughout the course of training camp and practices, they have their chances. Owens needs a good “beat down” as some of his peers have suggested, but because they’re “professionals” he’ll skip along without having to worry about looking over his shoulder.


Because his teammates know that somewhere along the line, he might be able to make them some money. If not on the field perhaps in his dealings with management. Owens started his latest circus in the off-season saying he wanted to renegotiate his contract. It’s widely reported that it’s worth $49 million over 7 years. He did get a roster bonus that was all swallowed up by last year’s salary cap. He’s no financial liability to the Eagles at all. Cut him and they don’t have to have any of his “dead money” on their roster. And that’s the crux of the financial fight, not only by Owens but also by his agent Drew Rosenhaus.

Owens’ deal isn’t guaranteed, in fact, no contracts in the NFL are guaranteed and Rosenhaus wants to change that. The only guaranteed money is in the signing bonus up front. The rest is pay for play. It’s not that way in the NBA or Major League Baseball. You sign in either of those sports and you get paid the full amount. In the NFL, the money you get is from the signing bonus and you earn the rest year by year. Rosenhaus thinks that’s unfair and wants to change that, using Owens as a tool.

Sure, Owens should be paid the going rate for players of his caliber, and his bonus should have been in line with what the other top players at his position have gotten in the past. But who ever made the rule that a professional sports career should pay you enough that you never have to work again? “I’m looking out for my family,” is the funniest and most hypocritical thing any of these guys ever say. Aren’t we all?

When the players start invoking that way of thinking it gets the fans wondering about their own financial situation. And when they do that, it’ll eventually come around to whether the fan will buy tickets knowing that money’s going to the player in question. Are they really going to spend that money, taking it away from their “family” to give it to this guy? That’s the question no professional sports organization wants to have asked. So in a quiet chorus the NFL is, in one way or another, saying in unison: Shut up T.O.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

T.O. K.O.

“There are a lot of things I think about every day,” said Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeff Lurie, “but that’s not one of them.”

Lurie was responding to a question about a possible renegotiation of Terrell Owens’ contract. “It’s not an issue,” the Eagles owner continued. “It’s a non-issue.”

That’s about as straight forward as you can be. The guy with the money telling the guy who wants more that he can’t have it. “He’s getting destructive advice from his agent,” Lurie told a reporter in his office in Philadelphia.

And the saga continues.

Owens had rehabilitated his image somewhat in his first season with Philadelphia. He produced at a high level. He worked hard to come back from an injury. And his remarkable comeback and performance in the Super Bowl nearly earned the Eagles a world championship. He seemed like a bright, dedicated if somewhat self-centered elite athlete.

All this was after spewing venom in San Francisco, especially at quarterback Jeff Garcia.

Owens forced a trade out of the Garnet and Gold, so they sent him to Baltimore. But that’s not where he wanted to play. So the Ravens accommodated him and shipped him to Philadelphia. All was supposed to be great. Owens playing with Donovan McNabb, where he wants to play and making $49 million over the next seven years. His new contract was worked by the Eagles, and Owens promised Head Coach Any Reid that he was happy with the money and wouldn’t make any off-season waves.

But he lied.

Despite the rehab, it turned out that Owens is actually the epitome of the self-centered, me first professional athlete. In point of fact, he’s probably right that as the elite receiver in the league, he’s not paid what that receiver should get. But he signed the contract. He’s the one who promised Andy Reid.

But he was faking.

It seems the real Owens just can’t help himself. He needs more, more and more. Money that is. As Lurie said “At this level of money, it’s no longer about the money. It should be about winning championships.” At least McNabb acknowledged that when the said, “We’re going to be good whether T.O. is here or not. He should stop the squabbling and get back here.”

His promotion with ABC for Desperate Housewives was supposed to cast him as a sympathetic and smart figure. And it was the talk of the NFL He walked right up to the edge of full accepted stardom, but couldn’t make that final step. That step that puts somebody, something, or in this case, some team before you.

But he couldn’t do it.

And the shame of it al

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Weaver’s Take?

Make no mistake about it: despite all of the talk, positive and negative about Jacksonville hosting the Super Bowl, there are only 32 opinions that count, those of the NFL owners. They vote on where to put the game, they decide what kind of business deal it needs to be and they decide if a city can handle it. Not the sportwriters, not the broadcasters and not the fans. It’s the owners.

So at least one of them, Jaguars Owner Wayne Weaver is confident the game will return. “I had a conversation with Commissioner Tagliabue in my suite mid-way during the game. He was very pleased with the execution of the Super Bowl activities, the events. Clearly Jim Steeg and the NFL events people did a superb job. So, as I said, with few exceptions we have very little that we would differently. I can tell you, I can find very few things to find any fault with.”

Weaver is convinced the Super Bowl will have a long time residual effect on the city. The Jaguars owner has been a big proponent of downtown Jacksonville for a while, and it has been rumored that he’s tried to broker a deal to bring another luxury hotel to the Northbank. He knows downtown needs another hotel.

“Clearly we do. As you look at the RFPs on the Southside Generating Plant, one of the things that struck me as I walked through the NFL Experience and looked at that site, I’m just thinking ‘Wow, some CEO is going to walk through here and say what a great site.’ It’s so big so it could be multi-used, hotel, condos, office. It’s a 44-acre site there. I think there is still room on our southbank and the shipyard property that we could have a small 150-, 250-room luxury hotel. All of those things are going take place over the next ten years. I’m confident of that.”

So I asked him if that was a project he’d be willing to take on.

“I clearly have a big vision for our downtown and I think the exposure that we’re getting, that we got this past week, is going to allow us, and shame on us if we don’t have a big enough vision and a strategy to go out and make sure those kind of things happen because the key to our downtown is our riverfront on the north and south bank and how well we develop that over the next several years.”

Nice answer. Not exactly answering the question, not saying yes and not saying no.

(how confident are you that Jacksonville will be awarded another Super Bowl?)

“I think that we do have an opportunity to get another Super Bowl. As I explained last week in a press conference, the NFL is using it more as a business model today, but I would think 2011, 2012 would be a realistic time to think that we might get in a rotation to host another Super Bowl.”

(can you base that on comments you received from Commissioner Tagliabue and other owners or is that your optimism?)

“I think it’s pure optimism on my part, but I certainly think my optimism is based on what all the owners said to me. It was a majority that were here sometime during the latter part of the week and they were all very complimentary on the execution of Super Bowl here in Jacksonville.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

What Do You Like?

Make no mistake about it: despite all of the talk, positive and negative about Jacksonville hosting the Super Bowl, there are only 32 opinions that count, those of the NFL owners. They vote on where to put the game, they decide what kind of business deal it needs to be and they deside if a city can handle it. Not the sportwriters, not the broadcasters and not the fans. It’s the owners.

So at least one of them, Jaguars Owner Wayne Weaver is confident the game will return. “I had a conversation with Commissioner Tagliabue in my suite mid-way during the game. He was very pleased with the execution of the Super Bowl activities, the events. Clearly Jim Steeg and the NFL events people did a superb job. So, as I said, with few exceptions we have very little that we would differently. I can tell you, I can find very few things to find any fault with.”

Weaver is convinced the Super Bowl will have a long time residual effect on the city. The Jaguars owner has been a big proponent of downtown Jacksonville for a while, and it has been rumored that he’s tried to broker a deal to bring another luxury hotel to the Northbank. He knows downtown needs another hotel.

“Clearly we do. As you look at the RFPs on the Southside Generating Plant, one of the things that struck me as I walked through the NFL Experience and looked at that site, I’m just thinking ‘Wow, some CEO is going to walk through here and say what a great site.’ It’s so big so it could be multi-used, hotel, condos, office. It’s a 44-acre site there. I think there is still room on our southbank and the shipyard property that we could have a small 150-, 250-room luxury hotel. All of those things are going take place over the next ten years. I’m confident of that.”

So I asked him if that was a project he’d be willing to take on.

“I clearly have a big vision for our downtown and I think the exposure that we’re getting, that we got this past week, is going to allow us, and shame on us if we don’t have a big enough vision and a strategy to go out and make sure those kind of things happen because the key to our downtown is our riverfront on the north and south bank and how well we develop that over the next several years.”

Nice answer. Not exactly answering the question, not saying yes and not saying no.

(how confident are you that Jacksonville will be awarded another Super Bowl?)

“I think that we do have an opportunity to get another Super Bowl. As I explained last week in a press conference, the NFL is using it more as a business model today, but I would think 2011, 2012 would be a realistic time to think that we might get in a rotation to host another Super Bowl.”

(can you base that on comments you received from Commissioner Tagliabue and other owners or is that your optimism?)

“I think it’s pure optimism on my part, but I certainly think my optimism is based on what all the owners said to me. It was a majority that were here sometime during the latter part of the week and they were all very complimentary on the execution of Super Bowl here in Jacksonville.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

The Saga Continues

It is just amazing how the Super Bowl venue is getting nearly as much press as the game itself! One of the reasons is fear of the unknown, the other is that it is a totally new concept for the big game. If you haven’t been to a bunch of Super Bowls, you don’t know that the pre-game festivities are spread all over the host city and the surrounding area. In Miami you travel from Palm Beach to the Keys to cover the game. In Houston, the only time you went to the stadium was for the game. Everything else was 30 miles away. Atlanta had a concentration of events in the downtown area, but you had to head out to Buckhead and points north for any entertainment. Tampa created an entertainment zone, but you had to get there. And in San Diego, the pre-game events were spread all over Southern California.

Jacksonville’s Super Bowl is packed into a two-mile radius around the Stadium. The cruise ships, the main hotels and the entertainment zone are all rolled into one. Once visitors get to their rooms, they won’t have to get in a car again. Food, drinks, concerts and other entertainment will all be right along the river, mainly on Bay St. which will be closed to vehicular traffic beginning on Thursday. The NFL experience is a water taxi ride away across the river. If it works, the NFL will begin to ask other cities to move everything closer so that it’s a real three day celebration of the league.

Former Times-Union writer and current cbs.sportsline columnist weighs in on Jacksonville as a host Super Bowl city.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Super Update

I really didn’t think I was that tough on Tony Kornheiser. After his scathing column ripping Jacksonville as a host city for the Super Bowl, we called him up and asked if he’d like to explain himself on the six o’clock news. At first he declined, and then agreed to appear via telephone. We read a couple of quotes from the column, introduced him, and asked him a pretty simple question:

“When was the last time you were in Jacksonville?” Little did I know that question would set off a firestorm of commentary and controversy locally and in some case, across the country. Come to find out, Tony’s never actually been to Jacksonville. He’s been through it and “I usually stop for the free orange juice,” was the full extent of his experience.

(By the way, where’s that? I’ve never seen a free orange juice stand on 95, but maybe I’ve just missed it.)

I’m not sure why, but the whole thing started to go downhill from there, with Kornheiser making fun of my Maryland roots and calling on his “we kid because we love” get out of jail free line. I actually was just looking for his motivation for writing the column. Does he do this every year the week before the Super Bowl? Did he rip Houston, Miami, Tampa, Atlanta, San Diego and others just to get a rise out of the population? I never really got an answer and I’m still trying to figure it out. On his radio show the next day in D.C. he called me a “pompous, blowhard, gasbag,” not exactly addressing the question. I did find out that not only has he never been here, he’s not coming for the game either!

Maybe there’s something about Jacksonville that just grates on people. They went nuts in Charlotte in ’93 when the NFL awarded a franchise to Jacksonville alongside “the Queen city.” “Don’t worry Charlotte, you’re not Jacksonville,” one columnist opined in the morning paper (of course he’s still right, they have a long way to go.)

Jacksonville has talked a big game for the last twenty years, and then backed it up with action. A rebuilt downtown sports complex now has an NFL Franchise, a Dodgers affiliate and the NCAA Tournament as tenants. The ACC football and baseball championships will be played in town. And, of course, the Super Bowl rolls through on February 6th. The Players Championship and the Bausch and Lomb tennis championships have been in town since the ‘70’s.

The sports credentials are easy to find. In fact, the culture of the city is woven through the sports calendar. Around the golf, tennis, boating, cycling and other 12-month outdoor sports people participate in, they find time to support the things that come to town. And for some reason that really gets under some people’s skin. Jacksonville has never claimed to be Miami, Tampa, Orlando, Atlanta, D.C. or any other city it’s not.

In fact, Jacksonville has never wanted to be any of those.

The people here are comfortable with who they are and where they’re going, and maybe that’s the thing that bothers so many people. It’s not the greatest place for clubs, restaurants, nightlife and shopping. But as far as lifestyle, the people who live here like it.

The “dis” fest will continue, except for Mike Bianchi from the Orlando Sentinel. A former Jacksonville columnist, his take is below:

Super tally: Orlando dallies; Jacksonville does
  Published January 28, 2005

This is a very bad time to be a sports columnist in Orlando.

I feel like I’m standing outside the big columnist party, nose pressed against the glass, watching the other scribes laughing and joking and having a blast at Jacksonville’s expense.

“How did Jacksonville get the Super Bowl?” lampooned Tony Kornheiser, a columnist for the Washington Post and co-host of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, earlier this week. “What, Tuscaloosa was booked? . . . Who in Jacksonville has a photo of Paul Tagliabue with a goat?”

Kornheiser claims Jacksonville does not have the sophistication to host a Super Bowl, which seems sort of odd coming from a guy who wears a turban on TV and yells a lot.

But, hey, Kornheiser can ridicule Jacksonville with impunity for one very good reason: He doesn’t write in Orlando.

In Orlando, we don’t put down Jacksonville; we look up to Jacksonville. We don’t disparage our northern neighbors; we envy them. We don’t call Jacksonville names; we just call Jacksonville, “Daddy.”

Here’s all you need to know: As Jacksonville gets ready for its Super Bowl next weekend, guess what big sports happening will be in Orlando this weekend? It’s called “The Super Bowl of Motorsports,” but actually it’s just a glorified name for a tractor pull. Jacksonville gets the real Super Bowl; we get the Monster Truck Super Bowl.

Wooo-Weee, Merle, did you see that ol’ boy flip his F-250 with the posi-traction rear end? He’s so dumb he couldn’t find his behind with both hands and a coon dog.

“The Monster Trucks are extremely popular here,” confirmed Allen Johnson, director of the Orlando Centroplex. “We’re expecting about 60,000 at the Citrus Bowl.”

Need we say more?

This is why the rip-Jacksonville reindeer games will proceed without any notable input from this Orlando columnist. Let the writers from New York and Boston take shots at Jacksonville if they must, but not me. I used to live in Jacksonville; I know how hard that city worked and how much money it spent to become a sports town.

Would Orlando be a better spot for the Super Bowl? Of course, it would. We have a zillion hotels, an internationally renowned airport and infinitely more entertainment options. But Jacksonville has something more important: Vision.

Ignore the insults, Jacksonville. Be proud of where you came from and what you’ve become. Stand tall. You are a Super city, no matter what the knuckleheads say or write.

Jacksonville shouldn’t be laughed at by the nation’s media, it should be lauded. Jacksonville is what all sports writers say they love: The ultimate underdog story. It’s the Rocky and Rudy of sports cities. It is the little town that could. And did.

Orlando dreams; Jacksonville does.

Orlando wanted an NFL team at one time; Jacksonville went out and got one.

Orlando wants a new downtown arena; Jacksonville just built one.

Orlando wants a minor-league baseball park downtown; you should see the one Jacksonville just built.

Orlando put in a half-hearted bid to get the Atlantic Coast Conference football championship; Jacksonville put in a serious bid and got the game.

“Jacksonville makes Tampa look like Paris!” Kornheiser wrote.

Unfortunately, as a sports town, Jacksonville makes Orlando look like Peoria.

Heck, we can’t even make fun of Jacksonville’s reputed love affair with Waffle House and Hooters. According to the Waffle House customer service hotline, Orlando and Jacksonville each has seven Waffle Houses. And are you ready for this? According to the Hooters Web site, Jacksonville has just four Hooters locations; Orlando has six.

So now you know why I’m going to leave the roasting of Jacksonville to other columnists. I have more important things to write about. Now if you’ll excuse me.

Hey, Merle, did you see that wheelie?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Rippin’ Jacksonville

Last year I was at the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame selection meeting the Saturday before the Super Bowl when’s Len Pasquarelli offered “I might skip next year’s Super Bowl. I hate Jacksonville.” Furman Bisher, the long time Atlanta writer waved him off, saying he was way off base. But Pasquarelli persisted and I finally told him that I agreed with him, he shouldn’t come to the game because “that means one less uninformed hack meandering in the city.”

I’ve said all along they’d be ripping us, mainly because they don’t know what they’re talking about, but add Tony Kornheiser to the list of “uninformed hacks” about to make their way to town. Here’s his column of Wednesday the 26th.

Sam’s response to this article is below it.

What’s That Smell? Jacksonville
  By Tony Kornheiser
Wednesday, January 26, 2005; Page D01

Right after Chad Lewis caught that touchdown pass with about four minutes to go, the touchdown that cemented the victory and ensured the Philadelphia Eagles would be in the Super Bowl, some guy in the stands joyfully held up a sign that said, “We’re Going To Jacksonville.”

And I thought: What on earth is second prize? You have to build there?

How did Jacksonville get the Super Bowl? What, Tuscaloosa was booked?

If going to Jacksonville for a week is the reward New England and Philadelphia get for being the best teams in the NFL this year, Peyton Manning ought to be happy he didn’t get there. Imagine how Manning would have felt, having to play all year in Indianapolis, and then landing in Jacksonville? Which gods would he have offended to get that killer quinella?

The NFL must see itself as handing out some sort of charity when it awards the Super Bowl to any place other than New Orleans, Miami and Southern California. Because, believe me, nobody wants the game to be anywhere but there. So when the NFL insists on putting it in outposts like Detroit, Houston or Minneapolis, people ask, “Are you guys nuts?” But when you pick Jacksonville, people are agape and say, “Who in Jacksonville has a photo of Tagliabue with a goat?”

At least these other places are big cities, with some history and a longtime affiliation with the NFL, as opposed to Jacksonville, which has now been in the league for about 15 minutes. Detroit is where American cars are made, and where Motown music originated. Minneapolis-St. Paul is the home of 3M and General Mills. Houston is the home of NASA, and, thanks to Enron, the gold standard in white-collar corporate crime. Jacksonville is what? (I’m just taking a shot here, Tony, a dump? No. Cut that out. It’s a ‘Ville! The only good ‘Ville is a Coupe de Ville.)

Have you ever been to Tampa? It’s heaven, if you like Waffle Houses.

Jacksonville makes Tampa look like Paris!

Jacksonville has this one great thing, the TPC course with the island green on No. 17. (Which is actually in Ponte Vedra.) And the rest of it can be described with this phrase, “Welcome to Hooters.”

People in Jacksonville will be very upset with this piece. They will say it’s a cheap shot by an effete Northerner who didn’t want to be the 28th person on his own paper to write about how great and smart and handsome Tom Brady is. (Which is true, but come on, we kid because we love.) They will yell and scream that their city is hardly a backwater — it’s the 14th largest city by population in the country! Yes, and that’s because it’s the largest city by area by far. It’s an octopus. It’s 840 square miles! It takes in almost all of northeast Florida. If Jacksonville annexes all of southern Georgia, it could maybe crack the population top 10.

The NFL will tell you Jacksonville is a warm-weather site because it’s in Florida. But Jacksonville is barely in Florida. It gets cold in Jacksonville. Yesterday morning, the low was 31 degrees. That’s below freezing, boys and girls. That’s cold enough that you need to keep the space heater turned on in the double-wide. And Jacksonville is 20 miles from the beach. Jacksonville is one of the smallest and most remote stops in the NFL. Green Bay is smaller and more remote. But Green Bay has Lombardi, Starr, Favre and the frozen tundra. Jacksonville has a Dairy Queen.

Jacksonville may be in Florida technically. But this isn’t South Beach, gang. It isn’t the home of Gloria Estefan, Enrique Iglesias and Luther Campbell. Jacksonville is where Pat Boone was born (sometime around the Martin Van Buren presidency), and where the Southern hair band .38 Special got together. Somehow it doesn’t sound like hip-hop. It’s more like I-Hop.

My friend Tony Reali, “Stat Boy” on the “PTI” show, flew to Jacksonville a few months ago to emcee some dopey trivia contest. And when he walked off the plane, he got a whiff of something that almost brought him to his knees — it was Jacksonville — and he made the not uncommon observation, “This place smells.”

“I am from Staten Island, and I have lived in New Jersey,” Reali explained. “I know bad smells. This was right below Secaucus.”

Not as bad as Staten Island?

“Nothing approaches Staten Island,” Reali said with conviction.

The next day, while appearing on a national radio show with Dan Le Batard of the Miami Herald, Reali announced, “Jacksonville stinks,” and asked Le Batard if it smelled that bad in Miami.

My friend Mike Freeman, who used to work here at The Post and now writes a column in Jacksonville, heard the show and went wild. He called Reali “Stat Jerk” and “Stat Punk,” and chided him for slandering fair Jacksonville (named for Andrew Jackson, who, by the way, never actually set foot in it — he was probably waiting on the beach). In his column Freeman said Reali’s salvo was probably the first of many that would be fired at Jacksonville now that it was getting ready to host the Super Bowl.

Get used to it, brothers and sisters, Freeman wrote, this is what they’re all going to do.

Brady, table for five. Brady, table for five. Welcome to Applebee’s. Eatin’ good. In the neighborhood.


What we’ve been trying to to is confirm Kornheiser’s last visit to Jacksonville, because it’s pretty obvious, he’s never been here. I’ve never seen him any way. What do you expect from a guy who takes cues, willingly, from a guy called “stat boy?” He and other’s like him who are taking their shots are so full of self importance it’s actually amusing. Or maybe just sad. Because they’re afraid, afraid of what we are becoming. A force and a player on the national scene, leaving them behind.

Call it “sunshine envy.” I know, I lived in DC and this time of year sunshine is as rare as a sellout at a Wizards game. Picking is easy. Kornheiser went for every hackneyed stereotype ever thought up about the South, Jacksonville and anything else this side of the mason dixon line.

My Mom always told me you can find nice places in every city, and we know that about our town. You have to let it reveal itself to you, you can’t just shoehorn yourself in here. So perhaps he’ll be right at home here because he’ll be miserable, something he’s obviously familiar with.

Look, we don’t have to apologize or defend ourselves. We know who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going. So come to town, do your job and go home. Back to your beltway traffic back to your bickering politicians and back to as you called them your “effete northerner” friends.

Or better yet.

Stay home.

That’ll be one less uninformed hack wandering around our town. And besides Tony, how can you write an entire column about Jacksonville and not once mention Skynyrd?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

NFL Dilemma

Never one to give the media any credit, or a break, Ravens coach Brian Billick asked the media to “get all of the facts” before passing judgment, “although I know you won’t,” he added. Billick started his career in the NFL in the PR department so he thinks he knows how to manage the news he wants out on his team. The problem is, Billick hasn’t dealt with that many criminals in purple and black. He did have his Ray Lewis experience, but somehow, Lewis’ culpability in the Atlanta murder hasn’t taken the shine off his star in the league. Maybe he’s reformed, maybe he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the general lingering impression is that he got off.

It’s been widely reported that running back Jamal Lewis will accept a plea bargain this week that will carry 4-6 months in jail for possession of drugs with intent to distribute. Lewis allegedly committed this crime in the time after he was at Tennessee and before he joined the Ravens. The original charge carried with it a potential of a ten year prison sentence. With that hanging over his head, and the publicity a trial would bring, Lewis decided to accept the jail time and get it over with.

Somehow, in a twisted way, some people think that makes his crime OK.

But it doesn’t.

If in fact Lewis does plead guilty to the crime, he should face serious punishment from the NFL. He’s supposed to serve his time in the NFL’s off season. How does that make it any better? IF he had a regular job, would it be waiting for him when he returned? I don’t know the answer to that question, but the league’s punishment should send a strong message throughout the NFL. There’s talk of a four or six game suspension, but that’s just not enough.

I couldn’t help but think about that while watching the Kansas City/Baltimore game on Monday night. Here’s a guy who’s a major star in the league. One of only five players to gain more than 2,000 yards in a season. He’s celebrated as one of the examples of what a good football player should be: big, tough and fast. But how can the league allow him to continue to play this year as a convicted felon and hold him up as an example of who fans should pay to come see? Paul Tagliabue needs to sit him down until after he serves his time. I’m a believer in bringing guys back into society after they’ve served. Once that happens, let him be judged on his merits. But to allow him to play the season while waiting to go to jail would be ridiculous. Even Ravens fans couldn’t cheer with a straight face.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Chris Rix, Forgettable Legacy

If there was ever any question that quarterback in football is the most important position in any team sport, the case was closed on Friday night in the FSU/Miami game. Neither Chris Rix nor Brock Berlin were stellar but Berlin did just enough to not lose the game for his team. The same can’t be said for Chris Rix.

Two interceptions and two fumbles are in the box score for the senior quarterback for the Seminoles. OK throwing interceptions is part of any quarterback’s stats line and the occasional fumble is also part of the position where you handle the ball on every offensive play. But with the game on the line in overtime, and his team needing a big play, Chris Rix didn’t give them a play at all. Third down and in the shotgun, Rix fumbled the shotgun snap that was admittedly a little low and left. A freshman, even a sophomore and perhaps a junior quarterback could be possibly excused for not coming up with the ball. But a senior quarterback who’s already played three years as the starter has to know in that situation that the most important thing is to catch the ball from center and get the play going.

Simple as that. Whatever you do, don’t fumble.

But that’s the MO for Rix throughout his entire career. He’ll make the occasional spectacular play, and then the most routine thing gets away from him. His personal history has been well documented, from missing a major bowl game for not taking an exam to parking in handicapped spots on the FSU campus. His self-centeredness is the stuff of legend in Tallahassee. And while that’s kind of fun to chuckle about, how it carries over onto the football field is not anything to laugh about.

Rix seems to become so enamored with his own place in history, either by what he did on the last play or what he imagines he’ll do on the next one that he forgets to just get the job done. It’s not all about the glory; it’s about making the engine go. It’s about driving the car within the speed limit sometimes so you have enough gas to go full throttle at some other time.

Rix seems to always be thinking, “What can I do to win this game,” instead of “what do we have to do to win this game and how do I fit into that.”

Maybe it’s just Miami. He does seem to be a little afraid back there against the Hurricanes. It’s not that he throws off his back foot against them, because he does that against Florida and any other team with a little pass rush. He just sees guys coming from all angles against Miami and gets paralyzed in the process. He might have some big games against Wake Forest, but it’s the contests against Miami that he’ll be remembered for.

Some of the responsibility has to be put on Bobby Bowden’s shoulders. For some reason, he hasn’t been able to impart a certain kind of confidence to Rix without it turning into a full blown swagger. And Mickey Andrews seemed to be playing not to lose while they were up 10-3 rather than going all out for the win. A lead late in the game is not something to protect in college football. It’s something to build on.

And make an important kick once in a while. The field goal block in the 4th quarter was one of those little things that adds up in a game and lets it go to overtime.

But Chris Rix could have done something about it.

FSU has good players. They’re a good team that will still be in the top ten and probably play in a major bowl at the end of the year. But they’ll still have lost to Miami. Again.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Hall Of Fame Mistake

This year’ Pro Football Hall of Fame class is strong with John Elway, Barry Sanders, Bob Brown and Carl Eller. Elway and Sanders made it into the Hall in their first year. The discussion was minimal about both during the selection process. Elway is one of the top five or so quarterbacks of all time in the league, capping his career with two Super Bowl Wins. Sanders retired early at age 31, but ten times he broke the 1,000 yard rushing mark in a season, and his impact on the game made it easy to vote for him.

Brown took a while to get into the Hall, and was brought to the full selection committee by the veterans committee. Eller got caught in a numbers game during his eligible time, but finally the dynamic of the committee changed enough to get him in. But this class is incomplete.

One of the finalists, the last six who are put in front of the committee for a yes or no vote was Bob Hayes. Past his eligibility as an active player, Hayes was also brought to the main committee by the Veterans committee. After being pulled out of the morass of players who have slipped through the cracks of the process, Hayes then survived three rounds of voting by the full 38 member committee to become a finalist. As the late Jack Buck once said before the final vote, “I’m here as a selector to put guys in the Hall, not keep them out.” I agree and was pretty irritated when Hayes didn’t make the final cut.

One of the selectors favorite sayings is, “It’s the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of the Very Good,” and he, along with a couple of other selectors kept Hayes out of the Hall. It’s a shame, because those guys have a bias against Hayes that’s unreasonable. Whether it’s his performance in the “Ice Bowl” where he was no factor in the -13 degree weather in Green Bay, or his off field problems after he retired, those guys don’t think Hayes is a Hall of Famer. But if you use their own criteria, the criteria they used to get Lawrence Taylor in the Hall, Hayes is a slam dunk. His yards per catch, his touchdowns per catch and his overall impact on the game, similar to Barry Sanders warrant election into the Hall.

Those guys who kept Hayes out, they know who they are, and perhaps they have that right. Perhaps they consider themselves guardians of the gates of immortality, and carry themselves, particularly during football season, as some kind of sages with no peer. They’re mistaken. Sometimes swimming against the tide to make a stand is important. But you’ve got to know when to pick your battles. This time they won the battle, but no matter how many battles they win in the future, they’ll never win the war. They don’t deserve it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Pat Tillman RIP

He never wanted any kind of special treatment. He refused interview requests, refused coverage of his enlistment or graduation from Ranger school. He turned down the networks and told the Army he just wanted a chance to be a soldier and try to become a Ranger. Pat Tillman didn’t want any fanfare. He just wanted to serve his country.

Tillman died in a firefight in Eastern Afghanistan on Thursday. He was 27. The news swept through the sports world like a swift kick in the stomach. Most of the media didn’t even know Tillman was in Afghanistan. Or that he had be deployed in Iraq in March of 2003. Tillman was the guy who turned down the $3.6 million to take an $18,000 enlistment in the Army. But while the media focused on the money he walked away from, Tillman focused on his sense of duty.

“Pat was clear-eyed ad made level headed decisions,” former Arizona Cardinals Head Coach Dave McGinnis said yesterday. “He left football for a higher calling.”

Tillman’s friends said he was greatly affected by the events on September 11th and that those events spurred his decision to enlist. While he didn’t want any fanfare, the associated coverage surrounding his death has re-focused many people’s minds on the Americans and Allies killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tillman is a hero, not because he walked away from the money and the glory of professional sports, but because he was willing to sacrifice, and make the ultimate sacrifice, defending and preserving freedom.

Just like the thousands of other men and women in uniform and in harm’s way right now. They have taken the fight to the terrorists front door, redefining the battlefield away from downtown Manhattan and the Pentagon Tillman has put an identifiable face on the sorrow and suffering many American families have felt since the War on Terror began in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was proud of Pat Tillman when he enlisted, and I’m proud and thankful for him today. The Cardinals are planning to honor his memory by naming a plaza after him at their new stadium. America can honor his memory by finishing the job that took his life.

Maybe Tillman’s death will show many of the players and coaches in professional sports, especially football, how silly they look when they compare their jobs to combat. “I’m going to war with these guys,” is a phrase used by a lot of athletes in locker rooms across the league. Comparing a game to an actual battle is ludicrous. It also should give coaches something to think about when it comes to refusing to let their players talk with the media. Wait a minute. Eighteen-year olds are being interviewed on the battlefield in between firefights on live television while certain players and coaches are “off-limits” after games?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Hayes Not In The Hall

I was stunned, but not overly surprised when Bob Hayes didn’t make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year. As a member of the selection committee, I was in the room and part of the discussion about Hayes’ credentials when his name was presented in front of the full committee. The Senior Committee selected Hayes and offensive lineman Bob Brown as the two senior candidates this year, culling them out of a long list of deserving candidates who’s career’s ended more than 25 years ago.

“Some guys just slip through the cracks, “ is how committee member Paul Zimmerman explained it to me years ago.

The voting procedure doesn’t allow just a blanket vote on everybody’s who’s eligible. As the rules are now, a maximum of six can be elected into the Hall each year (it used to be seven). So if there are a bunch of offensive linemen, or a couple of slam dunks, like John Elway and Barry Sanders this year, some guys get pushed to the side. Eventually, their eligibility runs out, and they have to come out of what has been described as a “morass” of old-timers.

Hayes had never made it to the final selection phase before, so his credentials had never been discussed in front of the whole committee until Saturday, 29 years after he played his last game. In the league for 11 years, Hays averaged 19.9 yards per catch and still holds the Cowboy record for most touchdowns at 71. He scored a touchdown about one of ever five times he touched the ball. Pretty impressive numbers, but not enough for some of the selectors.

“I just don’t think he has the numbers to be in the Hall,” one selector told me after the vote. “There are 25 other guys who are more deserving in that senior mix.”

A real analysis of his stats shows that Hayes had some spectacular years, and some ordinary ones and no production in the post season. “He wasn’t brilliant all the time, like the great ones are,” another selector told me. “He didn’t make one big catch in one big game, and that’s the difference for me.” Perhaps true, but didn’t he change the game? Didn’t he cause defensive coordinators to invent the zone defense?

One voter put it this way: “It’s been said that you can’t write the history of the NFL without Bob Hayes in it. And that’s true, but that alone doesn’t qualify you for the Hall of Fame.” I disagree, and said so at the meeting, rather vociferously. I agree that Hayes’ career numbers don’t jump out when you dissect them, but as a career, it’s hard to ignore 71 TD’s and nearly 20 yards a catch. Plus if you “change the game” then you do deserve a spot among the immortals. Hayes’ nomination was the most discussed in the meeting and even though there were some negatives, I thought the tone was generally positive.

The voting procedure starts after all of the candidates are discussed. The 39 voters are asked to vote for their top 10 out of the original 15, eliminating five of the candidates. When Hayes made that cut, I thought the arguments for getting him in had had an effect. Next we’re asked to cut down to six, which was, and always is the hardest part of the voting. Guys have gotten out of the main pool, into the final list and past the first cut are great players, all with credentials worthy of consideration. Now we have to eliminate four of them before the final vote.

When Hayes made it to the final six I thought he was definitely in. Jack Buck once told me, “I came here to put guys in the Hall, not keep them out.” And I agree. If a player has gone through that process and there has been that much support for him among the other electors, why should I keep him out? So with a rare exception, I vote yes for the guys who make it to the finals. Once the final six are announced, we’re asked to vote yes or no on each candidate. With 39 selectors, it takes 8 “no” votes to keep somebody out of the Hall. So apparently the negative feelings about Hayes’ career and his post season numbers were strong enough to sway at least 8 votes to the no side.

I do think the vote was very close, but it won’t put Hayes any closer to the Hall. He has to come out of the senior committee again, and there’s no reason the committee should bring him before the same committee members just to have the same 8 guys vote no again. “It’ll be 5 or 10 years before Hayes is back before the committee,” I told Zimmerman in the hallway after the vote was announced. “At least,” he sighed.

Bob Hayes was wronged in that room, I really believe that. If you’ve got the support of so many committee members that you make it to the final six, it takes some kind of grudge or quirk of personality (as in I know things that you don’t) that allow you to vote “no.” That’s strange to me, but it’s the dynamic of the committee. And until that changes, until most of the committee will think of Hayes as an historical figure, his chances of getting in the Hall are slim. The committee does change, but some what at a glacier pace. The average age is 57 years old, so it’ll be a few years before Bob gets another chance.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Super City

Now that the Super Bowl is just a year away from being in Jacksonville, people are scared. Really scared. It’s actually coming here? How are we going to handle that? It’s almost the same attitude that most everybody had in 1993 when Wayne Weaver and company were pursuing an NFL team. Never happen. Too small, too backwoods can’t pull it off. But it happened in ’93 and it’s happening just twelve months from now.

The sports world is coming to Jacksonville. They’ll slam us. They’ll call Jacksonville every name from South Georgia to Nowhere Ville. They’ll make fun of barbeque, the river, downtown, the roads and everything else they can think of. This just puts us in the same category as every other Super Bowl city.

I’ve covered about twenty Super Bowls. I’ve been on the Hall of Fame Selection committee for ten years. The committee is a collection of the writers, broadcasters (not many) and columnists from around the country and around the league. It’s a group of recognizable names who influence millions of sports fans by putting words on a page or speaking to a television and radio audience. And you know what? They complain about everything and everywhere. San Diego, Tampa, Atlanta, Phoenix, etc, etc, I’ve never heard ‘em be happy about anywhere. The traffic’s bad, the food stinks, the people are rude and nothing’s right. They’re about as provincial as a group can be. If it doesn’t work exactly as they expect it too, then it’s no good.

One thing going for us is low expectations. Everybody expects the Jacksonville Super Bowl to be a disaster. No hotel rooms, no restaurants, no bars, no nothing. So, much like everybody else who comes to town, just about everybody will be surprised about what kind of place Jacksonville actually is. It seems everybody I know who’s ever lived here and moved somewhere else, moves back. Former Jaguars who move on to other teams keep their houses here. You don’t have to look far to see retired NFL players setting up shop in town, starting a business or living at the beach. But that’s for us to know, and for everybody else to find out.

“I hate Jacksonville,” one prominent sportswriter told me at last year’s HOF meeting. “I just might skip that one,” he added. “That’d be perfect,” I chided him, “one less uninformed opinion being sent out to the public.”

Longtime Atlanta journalist Furman Bisher overheard our give and take and chimed in, “Jacksonville is my favorite place to go. What are you stupid?”
“There’s nothing to do there,” the detractor screamed.
“Obviously, you know the wrong people,” Bisher responded, and dismissed the conversation as ridiculous.

Houston is hosting this year’s game, just two years after getting NFL football back. It was part of the deal to up Bob McNair’s price by $50 million to buy the franchise. Really. Part of the negotiations. McNair said he wasn’t going over $650 million, the league said their bottom number was $700 million and they couldn’t go any lower.

“I need some more value,” McNair told the league.
“How ‘bout a Super Bowl,” they answered.
“OK,” said McNair, and the deal was done.

Jacksonville’s pursuit of the game was much different, starting with then-Mayor Jake Godbold’s dream that hosting a Super Bowl would be the city’s entrée into the league. In the city was invited every year in the early to mid ‘80’s to make a pitch for the game. We didn’t get it, but the contacts made and the awareness of the town helped get the franchise in ’93. One Super Bowl pitch even yielded the Jackson’s tour at the old Gator Bowl. The former Patriot’s owner Billy Sullivan owned the rights to the tour and was looking for places to put it. He and Godbold were friends, so they struck a deal in the lobby of the hotel and voila, Michael and brothers played three dates to open their tour.

So watch for how Houston is depicted this week. Some will be kind, others brutal. And expect the same a year from now.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Super Bowl Bucs

Going into Super Bowl XXXVII the main question was, Can the Bucs score? The answer, of course, is an emphatic yes. In fact, the Bucs were not only the best team in the playoffs but also the hottest, leaving San Francisco, Philadelphia and eventually Oakland in their dust.

After a tentative first quarter, Tampa Bay made a couple of adjustments, started to gain some yardage on the ground and started to dominate the game. Michael Pittman and Mike Alstott provided a nice 1-2 punch out of the backfield, and the accuracy of Brad Johnson’s passes made the Raiders defensive backs no factor.

So what happened to Oakland?

The Bucs are what happened to Oakland.

Tampa Bay was better on paper, better prepared, executed better, brought more emotion to the game and “would not be denied” according to many players in the post-game locker room.

After trading away much of the future for John Gruden, Malcolm Glazer looks like a genius (a dweeb genius, but a genius none-the-less). This from a guy who headed an ownership group in Baltimore during the 1993 expansion and was denied because the league thought he wasn’t a “good fit.” The owners are smart, at the top of the NFL’s food chain, and weren’t about to hand over a $200 million franchise to somebody who wasn’t a “good fit.” But Once Glazer bought into the league by purchasing the Bucs (for substantially more than $200 million) they’ll all have to follow their lead in building a Super Bowl Champion.

How many owners would now trade two number one’s, two number two’s and $8 million for a Super Bowl championship? John Madden rhetorically asked during the 4th quarter Sunday night. All of them is the answer.

The Bucs built their team piece by piece, some through the draft, some through trades and some through free-agency. They used the Patriots success from a year ago as a model, snapping up mid-level free-agents like Keenan McCardell and Ken Dilger to fill some key roles. Not high-impact players, but solid role players who don’t put a big dent in the salary cap and could contribute all year long. Once again, the theory paid off with a title.

Jon Gruden is hoping he’ll be able to keep most of the team together and add to it as well. He even started recruiting right after the game. “We’ve got some money to spend and we’ll be interested in some free-agents in the off season. So if you’re a free-agent interested in Tampa, you can expect a call,” is how Gruden put it, slyly on Monday. It appears he likes the feeling of winning it all.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Super Bowl Host

Going to a Super Bowl city can be fun, frustrating, exhilarating and exhausting all at the same time. Super Bowl XXXVII is San Diego’s third time hosting the NFL’s big party, and that’s just what it is: a big party, or parties to be more correct. While 70,000 people attend the game, upwards of 300,000 arrive in the Super Bowl city to take part in the festivities. Just about every large corporate entity in the US uses the Super Bowl as some kind of client entertainment. Many of the corporations have a connection to the NFL through sponsorship, others are just there as part of the revelry.

There are official functions, sanctioned functions, and in every town, there’s a place where the assembled assemble. In New Orleans, of course, it’s Bourbon Street, in Miami, South Beach, in San Diego it’s the Gas Lamp district, and in Jacksonville it’ll be, well, where will it be? For the first time, the league allowed a city two years away from hosting the game to have a spot in the media headquarters, allowing Jacksonville’s host committee to give a long-range preview of their plans to put on the game. Set up right next to Houston, next year’s Super Bowl city, the Jacksonville host committee had about a 25X25 octagonal shaped booth, complete with a continuous running video highlighting the city, a Tiger Woods video golf game set up so you could play TPC as Tiger, pamphlets and brochures trumpeting the city’s climate and beaches, downtown and riverfront and showing off the cruise ships as the centerpiece of what they’re calling the “Super Bowl by the River.”

Yet everywhere I’d go, there’d be skeptics. “I might skip that Super Bowl,” said Len Pasquarelli of, “it’s a terrible town.” While Pasquarelli might be a little harsh, that’s the general consensus about Jacksonville hosting the game. We can’t do it, and even if we do, it’ll be terrible and the league will come to their senses and never come back. I covered the game in 1984 in Tampa and 1988 in San Diego, those cities first foray into the Super Bowl hosting business. Both were “not ready for prime time” places to be the first time around. Tampa was pretty sleepy and spread out, San Diego was downright scary in downtown. Both, with the help of the NFL, hosted the game, had their problems and set out to fix them. In each case, the league gave them a pat on the back and said “good effort, change the stuff that needs to be changed and we’ll be back.”

Tampa’s subsequent hostings have included a new stadium and expansion of their resorts, so it’s gotten easier each time. San Diego transformed itself downtown, adding the Gas Lamp district with plenty of restaurants and drinking establishments and two big hotels attached to the new convention center. It’s an easy choice for the league to put their big game.

Jacksonville’s a whole different story.

While the host committee has used San Diego’s bid and execution as a model, they’ve got a whole different idea. “San Diego is good for use because of its similar military personnel, the water and the population but we’ve got a different idea,” said Wayne Weaver, Jaguars owner and board member of the Jacksonville Host Committee. “We’re going to have everything possible within two miles of the stadium. People won’t have to go anywhere, and for sure they won’t have to drive.”

The big picture plan has semi-permanent tenting, trams and trolleys, cruise ships for accommodations and entertainment. So to the question “Where are all those people going to eat and stay?” the answer is: right by the stadium. “Oh, we’re actually ahead of schedule,” Mike Kelly, the president of the Host Committee said on Friday. “We’ve got contracts with the cruise lines and plans from the league so we’re very busy.”

While none of that seems to be tangible yet (the cruise ships won’t arrive until the week of the game) nobody’s panicking, especially not the NFL. Tim Murphy, the VP of sponsorship of the league and one of the key figures in executing the Super Bowl for the NFL is excited. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, but it’s going to be great. People won’t even recognize the downtown when the game is there.” And that’s part of the whole plan.

Jacksonville’s transformation for the game should give people a glimpse of what the city can be in the future. I went to a party in downtown San Diego on Friday night, very exclusive (invited by my brother), where the guests had no idea they were in an abandoned warehouse, painted, scrubbed and fixed up for the Super Bowl. Same thing with many of the bars and eating establishments downtown. Unoccupied storefronts are spruced up, food service and liquor licenses granted and voila, a place to eat, drink and meet is created. The NFL has plenty of experience at changing planning and changing things. They’ve accepted Jacksonville’s application and they’ll make it work. What we do with it while it’s here and after it leaves is up to us.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Raiders Bucs Super Bowl XXXVII Preview

A bunch of people asked me on Saturday, “Hey, who won that game last night?” Some of them just had a passing interest in what was going on (since neither Florida nor Florida State were playing) and others just went to bed before the game went into overtime. Either way, as sports fans, they missed a riveting, if not a well-played game. This game to determine a national champion had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows for both teams, collectively and individually. As a team, Miami felt the ecstasy of winning and the despair of losing within ten minutes of each other. Their kicker did what all kickers hope to do: kick the game winning/tying field goal on the last play of the game. Their star running back was beginning to dominate the game when in the flash of an eye; his season was over, his career in jeopardy. Ohio State had the same emotions as a team; going from thinking they had lost to knowing they had won, one right after the other. Their quarterback couldn’t do much in regulation, yet completed a 4th-and-14 pass to keep his team’s hope alive.

With the flurry of action at the end of regulation and in overtime, the focus on the interference call in the end zone and Willis McGahee’s injury, one play might get lost in the memory of this game, but it’s the play this game will be remembered for years from now. The Buckeyes were about to score a touchdown to go up 21-7 when Miami’s Sean Taylor intercepted the ball in the end zone and headed the other way. Instead of a two-touchdown lead, the game was about to be tied and thrown into a frenzy. As Taylor was headed down the sideline, Ohio State’s freshman running back Maurice Clarett caught him from behind, made the tackle and stole the ball all at the same time! The physical ability to make the play and the mental presence to execute it and change the outcome right on the spot is a rare combination for any athlete, let alone a true freshman playing in the national championship game. Clarett spent the week bashing the athletic department in Columbus for their lack of understanding, so his motivation was in question as the game approached. Even though Miami did a good job keeping him in check, that one play, and his subsequent touchdown run in overtime raised his profile equal to his hype.

It wasn’t a clean, well-played game, but rather the kind of game Ohio State hopes to be in every week. It was tough, it went down to the wire, it had all kinds of strategy and turnovers and it turned into a test of wills.

“They couldn’t match our talent,” Hurricane tight end Kellen Winslow said after the game, “But sometimes it takes more than that. I guess we learned that tonight.”

Many sports fans also learned a lesson: don’t go to bed too early.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Button-Less Players

In the parity world of the National Football League, it’s nearly impossible to predict games anymore. Calling a game the “lock of the week” seems like an oxymoron. Different levels of play occur each week with very little consistency among teams. The Forty-Niners are playing at home against a Donovan McNabb-less Eagles squad and they get thrashed 38-17. Jacksonville beats Kansas City and Philadelphia, only to lose to the expansion Texans at home. The Packers are buzzing through the league about to clinch the division title, and lose two straight, including one to the lowly Vikings. Is there any fault in this kind of uncertainty or is this just the way it is?

Parity has come to the league through the salary cap and the draft, making the best teams just slightly better than the worst. “The margin for error is so small,” says Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell, “that you can’t make a mistake in the game or it will cost you.”

Coaching styles throughout the league vary, but all with the same results: inconsistency. Do the coaches not know the right buttons to push? Actually, we have reached the era of the “button-less player.”

There were always two kinds of players in professional sports. The smart, motivated and skilled player who hated to lose, and the not-so-smart, mildly skilled player who needed motivation. The former showed up every week ready to play. The latter was alternately hit over the head with a sledgehammer one-week and stroked with a velvet glove the next as coaches and teammates looked for that delicate balance necessary to motivate this group of players. Coaches spent years pouring over x’s and o’s as well as learning the psychology of getting players ready to play.

Now, everything they’ve learned about off-the-field preparation is obsolete.

There are still two groups of players in pro sports. Everybody who reaches that level is highly skilled. The group of smart and motivated players emerges as stars, dominating games, winning acclaim and notoriety. They’ve never needed motivation, and they don’t now. The other group fills out the rosters of professional teams, playing great one week, and disappearing the next with no rhyme or reason. Coaches or teammates can’t influence their performance.

They’re button-less.

Those players either motivate themselves, or not at all. They’re not fueled by fear of losing their livelihood. They’ve made it to the top, and they’ll stay there. “If not on this team, then somewhere else,” one player recently told me, “somebody will sign me.” Money is not an issue because their bonuses are already banked. They’ve made it among the elite, and their peer group treats them with honor and respect. “I get a paycheck once every 17-weeks win or lose,” Tony Siragusa said during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, reflecting the attitude of many modern day players. The distractions surrounding the game and the players pull away from the single-focus needed to play the game at a high level. That leaves the games as an inconsistent product, with teams emerging at the end of a season. The “hot” teams are the ones where the “button-less” players get swept up in the emotion of vying for “the ring.” This isn’t to say that they have no heart, or desire to play or compete. Quite the contrary, they all have that in order to have reached that level. It’s just finding it regularly that’s the problem.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

John Unitas

Growing up in Baltimore in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s you were a Colts fan. There wasn’t a lot of choice in the matter. Everybody followed the Colts. Even if you moved to Baltimore from out of town, you might have kept your allegiance to some other team, but you did it quietly. On the outside, you were a Colts fan.

I didn’t know any other football teams really. The Redskins and Eagles were teams we beat all the time. The Browns were occasionally good. The Giants had been in decline, and the Packers were the team we hated the most. We talked about the Colts; our parents, teachers, friends and even our priests talk about the Colts. Of course, it didn’t hurt that they were among the best teams in the league at that time, and had some of the best players to ever play the game wearing the blue and white.

And they had Johnny Unitas.

There were the Colts, the guys who played on Sunday and wore the Colts uniforms, and then there was Unitas, the guy who, in our minds invented football. If football players are larger than life, Unitas was some kind of sports deity. Being cut by the Steelers and acquired by the Colts through a sixty-cent phone call, Unitas was perfect for Baltimore. Maybe it’s because it’s a port town, and maybe because it’s always been working class and full of immigrants and ethnic neighborhoods, Baltimore has always seemed to be full of people who tried harder. It’s always had that second-city identity, and Unitas was embraced as one of us. He wasn’t the biggest or fastest, but he usually was the smartest guy on the field. In an era where the quarterback called the plays, Unitas had a knack for always calling the right one.

In 1998, the NFL had a 40th anniversary celebration at the Super Bowl of the 1958 NFL Championship game between the Colts and the New York Giants known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” All of the big names from that game were there. Except Unitas. He said he had a previous engagement, but actually he was angry with the NFL and their medical benefits coverage for players of his era. Still, he was the topic of conversation among Lenny Moore, Art Donovan, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff and the others. “Unitas just picked us apart,” Huff said when asked about the Colts’ drives at the end of regulation and in overtime. “He was the best,” the Hall of Fame linebacker added.

In a crowded room of reporters I asked if they were anticipating the match up again in 1959 title game. “Nah,” Huff dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand, “they still had Unitas and we didn’t. He was the difference. We knew it would be the same.”

Unitas defined what a quarterback was supposed to be: talented without being showy, smart without being a know-it-all and confident without being cocky. He wasn’t just in the game; he was part of the game. He knew where everybody was supposed to be on the field at all times. All 21 other players. Some of his teammates, and many of his competitors thought Unitas to be too cocky. He scoffed at that idea saying, “Conceit is when you’re bragging. Confidence is when you know you can get the job done. And you let those other guys in the huddle know they can get the job done too. Without them, I’m nothing.”

He was probably right about the 1970 Super Bowl where Don Shula (then the Colts Head Coach) put him in too late to do anything. The Jets, 16-7, upset the Colts, the first win for the AFL. Asked if he would have made a difference if he had started Unitas offhandedly said, “it wouldn’t have taken that long.”

In the shifting American culture of the late 50’s through the early 70’s, Unitas was “old school” before anybody heard of “old school.” The sloped shoulders, the single bar helmet and the trademark black high tops. Running around in my front yard we were always, Tarkenton, Jurgensen or even Dr. Frank Ryan. Nobody was Unitas. He was too revered. It never was even a question. We were not worthy. Nobody wore 19. That was Johnny U’s number. Period. You just didn’t wear 19. Sure, when you were playing catch you could emulate that two handed, shoulder-shifting, seven-step drop with a perfect over-the-top delivery, but never in the street game. You’d be ridiculed. “What? You trying to be Unitas or something?”

Intensely private, Unitas stayed out of the spotlight after his retirement, even when he went back to work out of football after some failed investments. He worked with a friend of my father in the import/export business for a while. It was hard to believe that you could call a business and they’d put you through to Johnny U. “Unitas,” is how he answered the phone when my Dad put in a call after some prodding from his friend. “Uh, uh, uh,” were the first three things my Dad said until Unitas interrupted him and said in a calm and very friendly manner, “I get this a lot. Just relax and tell me how I can help you.” Once composed, my Dad and John Unitas had a pleasant, short conversation.

We should have known something about the Irsays when they allowed Unitas to finish his career with San Diego. Unitas did go over 40,000 yards passing in a Chargers uniform, the first quarterback to do so. And he taught Dan Fouts how to be a quarterback.

He wanted his stats deleted from the Colts record book once they moved to Indianapolis. If they weren’t from Baltimore, they couldn’t possibly be the Colts. (I’ve always been somewhat chagrined that there was no loud cry for a new team in Baltimore when Irsay moved the Mayflower vans out under the cover of darkness in 1984. When Modell moved the Browns, you’d have thought a national crime was committed, but when the Colts were stolen, there wasn’t a peep outside of Baltimore.)

So it always seemed strange to me when Unitas adopted the Ravens when they moved to town. But there he was, standing on the sidelines during most home games, just lending his aura, his connection to tradition, to the newest immigrants in Baltimore.

I saw John Unitas last year at the Jaguars/Ravens game. Waiting for an elevator, the doors opened, and standing there in a khaki windbreaker and a young p.r. intern at his side was Johnny U. I stood there for a second, and when we made eye contact it gave me that “are you getting on” look. I really didn’t want to bother him, but somehow I did want him to know what a positive influence he’d been on my life. So I just said, “Hi,” and mentioned that I grew up in Baltimore and had been a Colts fan in his playing days. “Yeah, those were great times,” he said, as I’m sure he’d said a million times before. But he said it with that trademark self-deprecating smile as the doors opened and we walked toward the field.

I thought about that two-handed, shoulder shifting, seven step drop with the perfect overhand delivery as he stepped onto the field.

“What? You trying to be Unitas or something,” I heard my boyhood friends shouting in my memory.


Shouldn’t we all?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

1000 Super Bowl Days

It’s now under a thousand days before the Super Bowl is played here in Jacksonville. There’s a little bit of anticipation about the game, but any real enthusiasm has been kept pretty well under wraps. I’ve covered the game since the early ‘80’s and have seen successful host cities, and not so successful host cities. In fact, San Diego, the site of this year’s game, qualifies in both categories.

When they first held the game there in ’88, it was a scary place to be. Dangerous downtown, terrible traffic, not much nightlife unless you were invited to one of the NFL or their clients premier parties. When the game returned ten years later, San Diego had completely changed. Great downtown hotels, a gaslight district with restaurants and nightlife, a light rail system and a vibrant feel about a city by the water.

Sound familiar?

In these next thousand days, the charge for Jacksonville’s Super Bowl organizers is to be San Diego the second time around. To transform our downtown from a scary place to be, to an inviting area where people will be entertained and feel safe. Forget comparisons to Miami and Tampa and New Orleans. They’ve got meeting space and convention centers and are destinations year-round. San Diego is where Jacksonville should look. They figured out their problems and fixed them before the game returned.

The promise of the organizing committee to the NFL was that the celebration would be centered on a 2-mile radius near the stadium. You might think that can’t be done. But I’ve seen it at other major events and it can happen here. Boarded up storefronts become temporary souvenir shops and casual beer drinking establishments. Giant tents can be erected, inviting all kinds of vendors to be a part of the Super Bowl experience. Public transportation should be the major focus for getting people from out of town, all over our town. The next Mayor of Jacksonville should try and keep politics out of the Super Bow decision-making and fulfill his role as “best friend of the city.” That’s the only way it’ll work.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Super Bowl XXXVI

All of the little sayings turned out to be true. Third time’s a charm, defense wins championships, and they didn’t become sayings because they’re not true. In their third trip to the Super Bowl, the New England Patriots became champions, relying on the defense to get the job done. It’s not the biggest upset in Super Bowl history, but it’s up there. The Rams were considered unbeatable with an unstoppable offense and an improved defense.

Going in, the Patriots knew they had to accomplish several things to give themselves a chance to win. They had to create turnovers and turn them into points. They had to keep the Rams from getting the big play. They had to force the Rams to kick field goals when necessary, they had to control field position and they needed solid special teams play. They knew they had to do it, and they went out and did it.

It’s hard to tell if the Rams were a little off or if it was because of what the Patriots were doing. Either way, when Adam Vinitieri trotted onto the field with seven seconds to play, there was no doubt he was going to make the kick. By the way, when are coaches going to figure out that a soft defense that keeps the ball in front of you gets you beat? No time outs and just over a minute to play, the Patriots dinked the ball downfield, just enough to get in position for the winning kick. Pressure the quarterback and if you get beat, you get beat. The Rams will stay together for at least one more year, and perhaps it’s fitting that a team named the Patriots reigns as Super Bowl Champion this year.

With commercials costing “just south” of $2 million each to air on the Super Bowl broadcast, I thought they might have been a bit more creative. The Budweiser spots were pretty good. I especially liked the “Mini-Fridge” one at the beginning and the Clydesdales bowing to New York City was a nice touch. The promotion of halftime with football player looking guys dressed in frilly costumes didn’t go anywhere. The Dockers ad comparing the pants to a “little black dress” was mildly amusing. All in all, they were OK, but nothing to rave about.

Security at the Super bowl was very tight. The Secret Service was in charge of the area around the Superdome, and they were on top of everything. Uniformed, armed (M-16’s) guards were at every checkpoint. To get to any destination, even the media compound, you had to pass through several metal detectors, have your bags searched, have your credentials checked, get new credentials, get “wanded” and even patted down at least once. Every guard was cordial and professional but you had to add about an extra hour if you were going anywhere near the Dome.

At the Morial Convention Center, the site for just about every event outside of the game, the security was equally as tight. The league changed the credential procedure, and even issued two different credentials; one for the week and one for the game. Running the Super Bowl is a massive operation and the NFL knows what they’re doing. New Orleans was hosting their ninth Super Bowl, more than any other city. Even the Big Easy has changed how they do things over the years. The Convention Center is a new addition as a host site. More than 1.2 million square feet of contiguous meeting space, it housed everything from Paul Tagliabue’s state of the game address to the NFL Experience. Without a spot like that, any city has to be very creative when hosting the game.

Jacksonville’s Host Committee for Super Bowl XXXIX chose a new leader during their meeting in New Orleans. Mike Kelley, who worked on the Super Bowl in Tampa last year, will now serve as the host committee’s chief operating officer. Mike Weinstein is leaving that job in July in order to run for mayor. Kelley says that the similarities between Tampa and Jacksonville’s geography give him a head start. He plans to incorporate all parts of North Florida and South Georgia, including the beaches, to host a variety of events. The host committee received several lessons in security and planning while at the game in New Orleans.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Super Bowl Preview

In an odd twist, all three times the Patriots have made it to the Super Bowl; the game has been played in New Orleans. New England wasn’t competitive against the Bears or the Packers in their other two appearances and is already a 14-½ point underdog to the Rams.

Fourteen and a half?

That’s not as big a statement on the competitiveness of either team as it is a statement about the Super Bowl itself. Too many times, the game has been a blowout. The finality of it being the last game lends itself to risk taking that often backfires leading to a lopsided score. This game might be different though. St. Louis might be that good.

The Rams knew all along if they got the top seed in the playoffs, they’d never have to play outdoors, including in the Super Bowl. Much like the St. Louis and Cincinnati baseball teams of the 80’s, this Rams team was built for artificial turf. It gives them an advantage like no other team. The speed of their players and the timing of their offense are perfectly matched to what’s affectionately called “fuzzy concrete.”

There might be a player equal to Marshall Faulk in talent in the league, but none gets the most out if it like Faulk. Kurt Warner was right when he said he couldn’t believe he won the MVP wondering how anybody didn’t vote for Marshall Faulk.

New England got a little help in getting to the Super Bowl and although they are a good team with a solid defense, they haven’t seen anything like the Rams. In fact, nobody has.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Parity Stinks

Is anybody else sick of parity in the NFL? I know I am. Everybody’s calling it a “crazy” year in the league but it’s not crazy it’s just mediocre.


When Dallas beat Washington on Monday Night Football a couple of weeks ago, everybody thought it might be the Cowboys’ only win of the year. Instead, they’re just a game and a half out of first in the NFC East, with two wins.

A couple of weeks ago I was doing the weekly picks on the Lex and Terry Radio Network and went 11-2. Thinking I had it figured out, I expected the same next week, only to have 4 right, including “out on a limb picks” like Cleveland over Baltimore and the Redskins winning their fist game. At least I thought they were out on a limb.

It’s apparent the draft and the salary cap have caught up to just about everybody, making it a league full of possible 8-8 teams.

Does anybody really like that? I mean even the league can’t like the fact that instead of everybody looking like they’re good, everybody looks like they’re average. Why are players like Lonnie Marts and Tom McManus out of the league? Not because they can’t play, but because as veterans, their minimum salary is too high to warrant keeping them because of their knowledge weighed against a rookie’s potential, and cheap price. The middle year veteran player has been squeezed out of the league, leaving teams with a dozen or so high priced “playmakers” and the rest of the roster filled out with minimum salary rookies and free agents.

So what wins with that formula in the NFL?


Plain and simple, you’ve got to spend your left over money after you pay your stars on muscle. You can’t afford to have extra skill players around. If you don’t pay the price now, it will catch you in a year or so and you’ll have to dismantle, like the Buffalo Bills or the Redskins. You’ve got to have muscle among your middle and late round draft picks, and you can’t miss on many of them. Guys picked after the 3rd round have to come in a play a role on your team.

I subscribe to the dominant team theory. If the Rams are on television, I’ll watch that game because right now they’re the closest thing to a dominant team in the league. Plus they have fun; they throw it around, on-side kick at any time, and don’t mind what people think.

Over the years Green Bay, Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, Oakland and others have been dominant teams. Fans like that. They want to see somebody climb to the top of the mountain and claim it as their own for a while. It gives other teams something to shoot for. Right now, everybody’s looking at 9-7, and that will get some team in the playoffs every year.


Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Smart Football

My friend Michelle is the quintessential football fan. She loves the game. Loves the action, the hitting, and the strategy. I’ve seen her scream at the television, jump up from her desk and run around the office, flailing her hands in the air. I’ve seen her close her eyes and cover her face during a big play. Like she’s watching a scary movie. She told me she turned the Jaguars game off the other night, she was so disgusted. But the only time she cheered was when Chris Weinke was sacked. Not because it was a good Jaguars defensive play mind you, but because Weinke went to FSU. Michelle is a Gator fan, if you didn’t know that already.

Football, both college and professional, needs fans like Michelle. People with a passion for the game who don’t play it. I wonder how the recent spate of deaths on the practice field will affect those peoples’ loyalty to the game.

When Korey Stringer died on the Viking’s practice field, pushing himself past the point of no return, it opened the door for many questions regarding the football mentality. Do the players and coaches expect too much from each other? From themselves? Do the fans buy into that mentality? You’re a wimp if you give up. Push through it, try harder, get up and finish.

I’m old enough to have played football in an era when water was for sissies. Coaches denied us any rest, any break and no water was provided. It was supposed to make you stronger. Tougher in the fourth quarter.

So what happened?

How come players are dropping now with all of the advancements in exercise physiology and off-season training when before we were ignorant of the risks?

There are several theories, all of which I think play a part in the risk factors. Florida State Head Coach Bobby Bowden thinks lifestyle has something to do with it.

“Kids are in air conditioning all the time now. They’re in the dorms, watching television, playing video games, going to the library and even in the weight room, all in air conditioning,” says the chief Seminole. “Then they go out in the heat and can’t take it. I give ‘em four breaks in practice now and that’s the way I’ll coach from now on.”

Bowden is right about the acclimation factor. The Jaguars’ studies show that it takes an athlete five days to begin the process of getting used to the heat.

“We see it all the time,” says Jacksonville Head Coach Tom Coughlin, “the first five days are critical. After that, they (the players) start to settle in.”

Nutrition also is a factor. On the professional level, exactly what the players eat and drink is monitored at every meal. They’re caloric intake, the amount of fluids they lose and replace is measured for each athlete. It’s less specific as you go down the ladder of organized football. High school players eat what they want, and fast food is usually the training table of choice. Not exactly the nutritional preparation for three-a-days in the hot sun.

Supplements are part of the hidden culture of the game, and a contributing factor to the unknown. Players will try just about anything to get an edge. Supplements are not classified as food, and therefore not regulated. Some can help a player through a tough weightlifting session, but the side effects are a mystery. Some guys sweat more some sweat less. Thermogenic supplements raise an athlete’s metabolism and his heart beats at an immeasurable rate. Some faster than others. Some are fine others are unsafe. Nobody really knows. I’ve taken supplements as an adult and have seen the results in just an everyday workout routine. Imagine a young competitive athlete looking for an edge.

Problem is, nobody really knows.

As fans, we tend to view football players in a different light than other athletes. We see them as gladiators, warriors, somehow in a different class. That’s why guys want to be players, to join that elite class. There’s nothing wrong with a desire for achievement. In fact, ambition is an essential part of the path to greatness. We just need a better model in the future. One exercise induced, heat related death is too many. Stricter testing, better screening and smarter training techniques are in order.

Everybody should enjoy football.

Nobody should have to die for it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -


I’m with Wayne Weaver on this one. The NFL owners should have blown the whole thing up and started over. Even Weaver’s idea of 16 teams in each conference playing one game against everybody else and one game against the other conference sounded intriguing.

Wild, but intriguing.

Instead, the owners opted for the “old” rivalries, ones that have been around, in some cases, since the league started. With the league’s current parity and the salary cap, rivalries aren’t a real part of the game for very long anyway. Everybody’s going to be average, with one or two road wins determining what teams get into the playoffs.

I brought this up to my friend Tom, the Redskins fan, who scoffed at the idea of leaving Washington in the East and moving Dallas to the West, where they belong.

“You guys won’t want to play the Cowboys. For a while, they’re going to stink,” I explained. “And that’s just how we like it,” Tom quickly responded with glee.

There are some divisions that make perfect sense. The new AFC North has Cleveland, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. They can all lament about bad weather, how they get a bad rap, how they play real football, blah, blah, blah.

The NFC South has a real regional flair. Tampa Bay, Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina. I like that division. They can all drive to each other’s towns and say how much better they are then each other (behind their backs of course).

The rest seem fine except for the AFC South, where the Jaguars have been placed. Tennessee is a real rival, on the field and geographically. Houston could turn out to be a glamour team. New owner, Dom Capers as their coach, expensive stadium, large television market. As an expansion team, they have to go somewhere, and it’s a non-stop plane ride from Jacksonville.

Indianapolis? I mean Indy? What are they doing in a division with Jacksonville? Indianapolis has as much in common with Nashville, Houston and Jacksonville as, well as just about nothing. Domed stadium, not really Midwest, not really Northeast, it’s not a good fit for the division in any way. The only factor for Indy’s placement was the Irsays’ refusal to be in the same division with the Ravens, saying they didn’t want to have a trip to Baltimore every year. Talk about weenies. They moved out of Baltimore, Baltimore didn’t throw them out. If they wanted a real rivalry, they’d have demanded to be in a division with the Ravens.

New rivalries will develop quickly and fans will get to see all kinds of teams come through their towns every year. The preseason games will spice up the schedules and everybody will make money. They had a chance though. A chance to really excite a lot of people, but instead, stayed the course.

Occasionally, I wish they would stray off course.

Just a little.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

The Cap

For all of the talk about “getting it done” last week and how everybody chipped in, things are not all rosy at Jaguars headquarters. Owner Wayne Weaver said all the right things, quarterback Mark Brunell and his agent Leigh Steinberg were both quoted about how they were glad they could help the Jaguars get under the cap, but it all rang hollow.

Weaver didn’t like how the negotiations went and Brunell is sticking to the business side of the football relationship, trying to get as much money as possible, even apparently, at the cost of winning. It all depends on your perspective as to where to place the blame, if there is any. Brunell stuck it to the team by not agreeing to a new deal, but on the other hand, he didn’t put them in their salary cap “circumstance.” Kevin Hardy didn’t agree to an extension, further causing the Jaguars to trim their roster of contributing players.

Weaver, Head Coach Tom Coughlin and capoligist Michael Huyghue were all willing to go, as they say, “outside of the model” for high-priced talent, trying to get to the Super Bowl. “The Super Bowl is a powerful intoxicant,” is how Weaver put it, “but we won’t make those same mistakes again.” When asked this week if the Jaguars would have a different salary cap situation in the future, Weaver uttered a terse, “you bet.”

Since the inception of the salary cap in the early ‘90’s, some teams have fallen into the cap quagmire quicker than others. The 49ers and the Cowboys were loaded with salaries and kept paying, knowing it would cost them in the future. They won championships and now are every day teams, trying to figure out how to get out of their own way.

The cap helps sprinkle talent around the league, and that’s it. Players like John Randle, Marcus Robertson and Leon Searcy are now free-agents, released by teams desperate to get under the salary cap. They’re still productive players, still stars in fact, but the cap makes teams decide which stars they’ll keep and which ones they’ll cut.

Searcy said last week, “I’m important too,” when asked what the Jaguars might do. He’s right. The Jaguars had to decide between an All-Pro type lineman who is a great “locker room guy” and their Pro Bowl quarterback. The quarterback won out in the short term, holding the team hostage with his demands for more money.

When the 49ers recently signed defensive lineman Bryant Young to a long term deal, Bill Walsh said, “this will cost us untold numbers of productive players in the future.” If that’s the attitude around the league, why keep the cap? Certainly the NFL could come up with another way to restrict the movement of some players and give others the freedom to seek their own deals. The NBA created the “Larry Bird rule” allowing teams to keep the stars on their rosters while paying them accordingly, and have enough money left under their cap to put a good team around them.

The NFL, with its higher incidence of injury, needs to look over the cap. If a player is eating up a big percentage of a team’s cap and gets hurt, their season is over. They can’t sign somebody else, they don’t have the money.

Tweak it, massage it, figure out a way players can stay in towns and with teams for their entire careers if they want to. Doesn’t it seem funny with all the different dates and rules that the league created the salary cap, and they immediately started to look for ways to get around it?

John Unitas, Tom Matte, Art Donovan, they’re all Colts. Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris are Steelers.

Dan Marino is a Dolphin.

Will there be any career long Jaguars? Under the current cap structure, I wouldn’t load up on Brunell jerseys in the near future.